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How Soon They Forget: Megachurchgoers See No Evil In McCain

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At the megachurch known as Saddleback, Barack Obama and John McCain last night fielded questions from the popular right-leaning pastor, Rick Warren. The candidates were presented in serial one-on-one Q-and-A sessions (transcript) with the evangelical preacher, addressing topics ranging from leadership to human rights for fetuses to the nature of evil. That last topic was asked this way of each of the candidates:

WARREN: How about the issue of evil? I asked this of your rival, in the previous debate. Does evil exist and, if so, should ignore it, negotiate it with it, contain it or defeat it?

Now, imagine this was the year 2000, just a few days after the South Carolina primary, in which John McCain was defeated in no small measure by the efforts of televangelist Pat Robertson and the Baptist bloviator, Jerry Falwell.

The answer might have gone like this:

McCAIN: Defeat it. A couple of points. One, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get Pat Robertson and his agents of intolerance. No one, no one should be exert the evil influence on the Republican Party that he and that blowhard Falwell have had.

Of course, evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century -- radical Christian extremism.

The very fact that McCain sat across a table from the affable Warren shows that he learned his lesson from his 2000 primary defeat, which was clinched when, during one of those legendary sessions with reporters on the Straight Talk Express, McCain decried the "evil influence" the Revs. Robertson and Falwell, whom he really did call "agents of intolerance," had visited upon his party. He also compared the two religious-right figures to the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Nation of Islam's Minister Louis Farakkhan. Within days, he apologized for his use of the word "evil," calling it a joke. But no one bought that explanation -- neither the righties nor the reporters who covered McCain so breathlessly during that hot minute he played the insurgent challenger to George W. Bush.

And so, the McCain of 2008, if not a model Christian soldier, is eager to win the support of people he, not so long ago, disparaged. His rapprochement with the religious right began two years ago, when he patched things up with Falwell (who has since died), and agreed to speak to the 2007 graduating class of Falwell's Liberty University.

If McCain's efforts to woo the religious right seem a bit tone deaf (as in his promise to follow Osama bin Laden to "the gates of Hell") and disingenuous, last night's audience at Saddleback didn't seem to mind, enthusiastically applauding McCain's promise to defeat evil, even after politely applauding Obama's thoughtful plea to remain humble in the battle against evil, reminding his Christian audience that the eradication of evil is God's task, and that too often humans have perpetrated new evils in the name of eradicating evil.

Here's McCain's actual answer to the question about evil:

WARREN: How about the issue of evil? I asked this of your rival, in the previous debate. Does evil exist and, if so, should ignore it, negotiate it with it, contain it or defeat it?

McCAIN: Defeat it. A couple of points. One, if I'm president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow him to the gates of hell, I will get bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. (APPLAUSE). No one, no one should be allowed to take thousands of American -- innocent American lives.

Of course, evil must be defeated. My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century -- radical Islamic extremism.

Not long ago in Baghdad, al Qaeda took two young women who were mentally disabled, and put suicide vests on them, sent them into a marketplace and, by remote control, detonated those suicide vests. If that isn't evil, you have to tell me what is. And we're going to defeat this evil. And the central battleground according to David Petraeus and Osama bin Laden is the battle, is Baghdad, Mosul, Basra and Iraq and we are winning and succeeding and our troops will come home with honor and with victory and not in defeat. And that's what's happening.

And we have -- and we face this threat throughout the world. It's not just in Iraq. It's not just in Afghanistan. Our intelligence people tell us al Qaeda continues to try to establish cells here in the United States of America. My friends, we must face this challenge. We can face this challenge. And we must totally defeat it, and we're in a long struggle. But when I'm around, the young men and women who are serving this nation in uniform, I have no doubt, none.

Here's how the question was asked of Obama in the first segment of the forum, how the candidate answered:

WARREN: OK, we've got one last time -- I've got a bunch more, but let me ask you one about evil. Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? Do we contain it? Do we defeat it?

OBAMA: Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely, and one of the things that I strongly believe is that, now, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world. That is God's task, but we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it.

Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for to us have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil's been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.

WARREN: In the name of good.

OBAMA: In the name of good, and I think, you know, one thing that's very important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think that our intentions are good, doesn't always mean that we're going to be doing good.

Obama's is clearly the theologically superior answer but lacking the bloodletting promised by McCain, it failed to move this very holy crowd.

When I saw Obama take on each of Warren's questions thoughtfully, for the most part, and direct his gaze at his questioner as if the two were in conversation, I thought he had done magnificently. I thought he had aced the test.

The audience seemed to like him. They even liked his stance against torture, it seemed. The McCain came on and stole the show with his resolute, angry old warrior schtick and Vietnam torture stories, and this audience seemed to just love being played by a guy who desperately needs the religious right's get-out-the-vote machinery engaged on his behalf. (For the record, I really do admire McCain's decision to stay with his comrades in the Hanoi Hilton when he could have gone home, but that won't do much for me when he's adding another Alito or Roberts to the court, which he all but promised last night to do.)

It's said by people smarter than me that all Obama has to do in a room like Warren's made-for-TV sanctuary is to survive, be not scary, and earn respect. If that's true, he surely did that last night, and among some of the younger evangelicals, he may actually win a vote or two. But with Warren's claim to a kinder, gentler biblical imperative than is found by elders such as Robertson's, it was profoundly disheartening to see an almost knee-jerk response in favor of unbridled, war-mongering jingoism, advanced by a guy who probably doesn't even like them.

ASIDES: If you haven't yet, check out this post by Shireen Mitchell and yours truly, advancing the cause of seeing Hillary Clinton's name entered into nomination in order to unify the Democratic Party (and heal the women's movement).