Pastor Rick Warren's Civil Forum with John McCain and Barack Obama tomorrow could be the most exciting event of the political season. Why? Because the pastor of Saddleback Church isn't a member of the press, and he might not act like one.
That means he might not ask questions that have already been covered ad nauseam by the press. That means that he might give the world a picture of what the great majority of evangelicals are truly like.
They aren't like Jerry Falwell. Or Pat Robertson. They aren't like James Dobson. They aren't like the John Hagee or Ron Parsley. They aren't like the fundamentalist leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention.
The great majority of evangelicals don't even believe the most fundamental tenets of traditional evangelical faith.
And that's no big change. They haven't believed those things for decades.
I don't think Rick Warren will reveal the truth of that Sunday, but by his manner, his intelligence, his attention to matters of importance, he may show the nation a truer picture of evangelicals than we've had in the past twenty years.
The mainstream press will never show that picture. They're too busy copying each other's stories and chasing the latest lurid, extremist story that shows evangelicals to be malign, stupid and all-powerful. In that goal, they have plenty of allies within the evangelical and political community. These allies are people who benefit by that portrait. They get their power from exaggeration. And the reporters, who try not to notice what they're doing, go along because that's the way the game is played.
If you don't play by the rules, you don't make the front page.
But the biggest reason Rick Warren's not-a-journalist interview with McCain and Obama could be the most exciting event of the season is that he's already said he won't be adversarial.
I'm hoping that doesn't mean that he will play nicey-nice to the point that we won't learn anything. I'm so hoping he won't ape the Oscars by introducing them as "my personal friends." Aren't all friends personal?
But being adversarial means hammering people, scoring off them, cutting them off, putting them on guard. It means more of the snide. More of the cheap shot. More distortion. Fewer answers. Less true grappling with important issues in sincere ways.
Maybe I'm starting to sound like Obama here, but we deserve better. Democracy needs better. Warren's new approach might shame the journalists into getting out of the pack and into doing stories that offer true understanding instead of a facsimile called "balance."