Disappointment was my first response when I learned that Rick Warren, Pastor of Saddleback Church, had decided to cancel the 2012 Civil Forum on the Presidency. This was the pre-debate event in which he was to interview President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. But I can't say I was really surprised. From all signs, the name of this event may be the only place in America where you can find the words "Presidency" and "civil" in the same sentence.
According to Warren, a behavioral disconnect between the candidates fueled his decision to pull the plug. In his words, "I've never seen more irresponsible personal attacks, mean-spirited slander, and flat-out dishonest attack ads, and I don't expect that tone to change before the election. It would be hypocritical to pretend civility for one evening only to have the name-calling return the next day."
In 2008, Warren hosted the first-ever Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency featuring his sit-down interviews with then Obama and Sen. John McCain. By all signs the event was a rousing success with several commentators noting the general sense of fairness to the chosen format. Warren sat down with each candidate one at a time within the Saddleback Chapel full of parishioners and talked them through 20 questions, both of them responding to the same questions. Although there was some question regarding whether or not McCain was actually held in a "cone of silence" as Obama was the first to be interviewed, there was nonetheless a clarity and focus to this forum unattained by any of the debates. Then again, the goal was to have a civil discussion.
Although the 2012 event was never officially confirmed, last week Warren said (in the Orange County Register), that the "TV networks were eager to cover it again since it garnered one of the largest viewing audiences of that election. I talked with both campaigns," he said, "about the possibility of doing it again, and they were both favorable to participating."
If the first event went so well and since many efforts have already gone into recreating a similar event for this year, what are we to make of Warren's change of mind? After all, it isn't every day that a pastor and local church are given the opportunity and potential influence of hosting a major Presidential forum within the confines of their faith community; no small privilege. To my knowledge, the 2008 event was unprecedented in American history, certainly for an evangelical congregation. Warren's decision is quite significant and not to be lightly dismissed.
It seems the core of his reason can be defined by his seven words: "It would be hypocritical to pretend civility..." Ironically, "civility" by its nature is neither a word denoting behavior to be considered unusually meritorious nor far above the call of duty. Rather, it is ground level behavior to be expected by a civil-ization not only of its would-be leaders, but of its most common civil-ians. The words, "civil" or "civility" simply mean "kindness", "respect", "politeness", or "the state of being civilized." Warren apparently has concluded that civility can no longer be found nor anticipated among the two men chosen by their respective constituents to be the leaders of the free world. But, as it turns out, this was not his only reason for cancelling.
In a recent interview, Warren admitted that one of the reasons he changed his mind "is the crumbling of our constitution's first guaranteed freedom: the freedom of religion." Citing that religious freedom is an issue that has "far greater implications for America's future", he said that "today, at the city, the state, and the federal levels, government bureaucrats are daily trying to limit that freedom, impose restrictions, and stifle expressions of faith on campuses, in hospitals, and in businesses." He cited that there are "widespread attempts to redefine the First Amendment to simply mean 'You are free to believe anything at your place of worship but you are not free to practice your conscience elsewhere.'"
Warren has not given up his plans for a Forum this year. In fact, although he will not be meeting with Obama and Romney for a public interview, he will be conducting a "Civil Forum on Religious Freedom" in September. The event, he says, will include "the leading voices" among three specific religious groups: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Apparently, if he cannot expect the candidates to behave civilly, he hopes that a group of clerics can model such behavior for them.
When asked to be more specific about the respective candidates' views on religious freedom, Warren said, "President Obama's policies clearly show what he values and I have told him that I adamantly disagree with those particular policies. I have not talked about this issue with Governor Romney, but I would imagine that as a Mormon he would obviously understand the importance of protecting all religions against persecution, and ensuring people's rights to practice their conscience without government intervention. The constitution doesn't just guarantee your freedom to worship; it guarantees you freedom from government intervention in you daily living out what you believe."
While I am curious to hear the September Civil Forum at Saddleback and the religious leaders, I am disappointed that Warren will not be meeting with the candidates. Not disappointed with his conviction behind the decision; I respect that; disappointed, rather, because the 2008 event stood out as unique among the Presidential forums and debates. It was by far the most "civil", but I have a confession to make. If you watch the video of the event or peruse the transcript you will find that the participant who made the best impression that night was not one of the candidates, but the moderator. Warren exhibited an honesty and civility that night that caused the candidates to pale in comparison. In a word, he showed magnanimity, something rarely seen in modern politics but sorely needed in a country in disarray and much in need of inspiring, collaborative and exemplary leadership.
In 2008, Warren opened the first (and possibly only) ever Civil Forum on the Presidency with these words: "In America we've got to learn how to disagree without demonizing each other. We need to restore civility." Amen, brother! That's how magnanimity sounds. By the end of the 90 minute-long 2008 Forum at Saddleback, I had made up my mind about who I wanted to vote for as President. It was neither Obama nor McCain, but rather the pastor who so graciously and wisely hosted them both. It was clear that while Warren held his own views, he had room for both of these men in his world. Stoutheartedness; I like that in a leader.
So, when you walk through the doorway of the polls later this year, vote your conscience and remember the pastor who had to close his doors on the candidates ... and why.
Follow Robert C. Crosby, D.Min. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rccrosby