LAKE FOREST, Calif. — With potentially millions of religious voters in the balance, presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama will appear Saturday evening at a forum on religious faith sponsored by prominent evangelist Rick Warren.
It will be their first appearance on the same stage, though Warren will question the two men separately for an hour each. Obama will go first, then the two men will appear on stage together briefly at the Saddleback Church, then McCain will face the same questions.
The forum will be broadcast live 8-10 pm EDT on CNN, the Fox News Channel and Daystar Television Network.
It also will be available via the internet at www.SaddlebackCivilForum.com, ReadersDigest.com and MySpace.com/Impact, and on radio on the FamilyLife, Moody and Pilgrim Radio Networks.
The appearance will feature two candidates whose faith sometimes appears similar, and sometimes leads them in different directions.
McCain often mentions how his faith sustained him while a prisoner of war in Vietnam, telling how one of his captors treated him humanely and once secretly drew a cross in the first to signal his own faith.
McCain also talks about his stewardship of the environment and care for the poor — his wife helped found the American Voluntary Medical Team and led 55 medical missions overseas to deliver emergency medical care to the poor. Asked to provide medical care to two babies from Mother Theresa’s orphanage, McCain brought one home and the McCains adopted her.
McCain, reared an Episcopalian, now attends a Southern Baptist church in Arizona. He opposes abortion rights.
Obama has talked about his Christian faith influenced his public life, which included working as a neighborhood organizer trying to help people who lost their jobs. He became a practicing Christian as an adult, joining the Trinity Church of Christ until recently headed by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He quit the church during the primary campaign. He supports abortion rights.
The candidates meet at a time when the support of religious voters could be vital in a close election, and when the solid loyalty to Republicans seen in 2004 may be waning and Democrats may be making inroads.
Republican President George W. Bush in 2004 took 78 percent of the white evangelical vote, while Democrat John Kerry took 21 percent.
A recent ABC-Washington Post poll showed McCain with the support of 67 percent of white evangelical Protestants and Obama with 25 percent.
"A lot of religious voters are trying to make up their mind about how they'll vote," said John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron and a scholar at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
"A lot say they have some preference for McCain. But a lot of that preference is soft and many are still open. The candidates' faith and how they connect to issues is important to those voters."
The questions will be posed by Warren, the author of the best selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, and pastor of the mega-church.
"As a pastor, I believe in the separation of church and state, but I don't believe we can separate religion from politics, because one's faith determines one's worldview, which informs one's decisions and determines how one would lead," Warren said.
The forum could be very different for those accustomed to evangelicals pressing politicians largely on such hot button issues as abortion and gay marriage.
Unlike many older evangelists such as Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, Warren focuses as much or more on issues such as AIDS, poverty and the environment.
But he also suggested he would not shy away from other questions.
"Some secularists think I am going to make this a Christian or religious litmus test for the presidency, while many religious people assume I am going to wimp out and not ask about issues involving sanctity of life and the family, including abortion, stem cell research and traditional marriage. Neither is reflective of my position or purpose in this process," he said.
"I am a pastor, not a pundit," Warren added. "I will ask all the tough questions. But this is a conversation, not a confrontation, and I am going to be civil in our discussion. People know where I stand on the critical issues; however, this forum is not about me and what I believe, but to give a place for America to hear the candidates' hearts by going beyond moral issues and their virtues, to also share their values and vision for leadership."
In a break from most debates and forums (a forum defined as a meeting where the candidates appear sequentially but not at the same time), Warren planned to ask each of the two men precisely the same questions so voters could draw clear comparisons.