LAKE FOREST, Calif.-"By Monday morning, everything'll be back to normal here at Saddleback."
Fat chance. The prediction was pastor Rick Warren's promise to me and the other 9,999 people who showed up for worship at Saddleback Church the morning after its nationally televised forum of presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. Getting everything back to normal, even at a church used to mega-events, would probably take a little longer this time.
Saddleback Church notwithstanding, what about the rest of the country? Did Saddleback's "Civil Forum on the Presidency" do anything to change the course of events between now and Election Day on Nov. 4? In a close election, even little things count, and here are some things to be looking for:
1. What's happening to the importance and strength of the evangelical bloc?
Only nine days separated the Saddleback forum from the launch of the Democratic convention in Denver. A week later, Republicans gather in Minneapolis-St. Paul. What might the spillover effect be in these places?
The mainstream media spin through the spring and summer had been that evangelicals-and especially the "millennials," or those born after 1980-should not be counted on this year for loyalty to the GOP. If left-leaning evangelicals like Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo hadn't actually won over enough younger voters with the winsomeness of Barack Obama and with a few superficial changes in the Democratic platform, they persuaded enough reporters to scare GOP circles.
A more accurate reading might have been that instead of the millennial evangelicals, it was actually their parents-the older baby boomer generation of Republicans-who were cautious about backing John McCain. Many of them still weren't sure he was the conservative they really wanted.
Even so, hard poll data showed that as a whole, the evangelical bloc was holding firm. In early August, the pro-McCain margin in that sector was a convincing 70-19.
Rick Warren said that any potential for the left among evangelicals was being "overhyped." And certainly McCain's Saddleback performance was a plus for the GOP among any skeptics, just as Obama's was a net negative for his party. McCain's punchy assertions registered well with the base he needed to reassure, just as Obama's wandering wordiness cost him an opportunity to win over some undecideds.
For many McCain's advantage depends on his choice for vice president. "He promised Rick Warren-in so many words-that he'd give us a pro-life administration," Johnny Miller told WORLD after the forum. Miller is a stock broker who attends Saddleback regularly. "If he goes back on that, why should we believe him on anything else, and especially on the kind of Supreme Court justices he would pick?" Miller said if McCain fails that test, he and his wife-"and a whole lot of our friends"-may well vote the Libertarian ticket.
Bottom line: Going into the Republican convention, and in some measure with Rick Warren's help, the evangelical vote is John McCain's to lose.
2. What about evangelicals' reputation?
At Saddleback, in the press room and elsewhere, I watched 450 credentialed journalists (250 more were reportedly turned away) report the unusual forum. Almost to a person, you could sense that they were grudgingly impressed. The negative coverage that came over the next few days-and there wasn't much-came from reporters who hadn't even bothered to come to southern California.
Even the BBC said that the Saddleback effort was a picture of how such discussions ought to be held. Warren's artful questions-which he told me had gone through disciplined vetting right up until the hour of the event-will provide a textbook for professional journalists to explore in years ahead. At least the media folk now have a new "go to" guy among evangelicals. Warren offers them someone they can't easily accuse of whining or majoring on the negative. He's someone deft enough with ideas, words, and demeanor who can't be automatically caricatured or dismissed.
3. Can Rick Warren's "civil" part of the "civil forum" be maintained?
The buzz among his skeptics (evangelicals and otherwise) during the few days before the Aug. 16 event was that Warren would scuttle predictable "evangelical" issues like abortion and homosexual marriage in favor of topics more to the liking of moderates and liberals, like environmentalism and racism.
He didn't. Rick Warren's definition of being "civil" doesn't include throwing in the towel. Gregarious, jovial, winsome, nonjudgmental, but still serious, Warren explicitly pursued the very topics some conservatives worried-and some moderates hoped-he would duck. While many others have talked about civility, Warren modeled it. "I am determined to show," Warren told me a week before the event, "that demonizing your opponent isn't essential to talking about and even winning your point."
Doing that for one evening, in one setting, is one thing. Neither candidate at Saddleback, for 120 minutes, took a swipe at the other. But influencing the tone of a whole campaign is another, much harder assignment. The fruit of genuine kindness takes time to mature.
Warren did tell me, in a conversation the afternoon after the big event, that the "identical questions" format-something that won Warren wide praise-constrained him in ways he regretted. "Every bone in my body wanted to go, 'Yeah but, yeah but' in a follow-up mode . . . and to spend the next 30 minutes on each issue." But then he would have ended up asking each candidate different questions-something he had pledged not to do.
4. So in the end, should the American public expect evangelicals to be a front for the Republican Party?
To the contrary, many sectors of the media gave high marks to Warren and his moderation of the forum. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol, writing in The New York Times, said: "With all due respect to Jim Lehrer, Tom Brokaw, and Bob Schieffer-the somewhat nondiverse group selected by the debate commission as the three presidential debate moderators-one of them should step aside for Warren."
Indeed, Warren pointed out in our interview that almost everyone's guess prior to the event was that Obama was likely to profit most from it. "Obama is good at talking about issues of faith," Warren told me. But, he added, "I had no idea that John would be that good." And then: "John's answer, when I asked about what's your greatest moral sin, he blew everybody away, and he went right to the point [when] he said, 'The failure of my first marriage,' paused, teared up, and went for the next question. . . . He's not of the Oprah generation that spills out all the details. There was a 72-year-old man being honest in the way he was taught to be honest."
"Now, both of these guys, I look at Obama as the-how to say it-the thoughtful consensus builder. He's a constitutional attorney, so he's got all these nuances. John is a straightforward happy warrior. Yes, yes, no, and get 'em out of here! I wanted to fall out of my seat when he gave that education answer."
Whatever his personal opinions are, Warren did not want to push a particular candidate: "I just wanted for the people of God, and His church, to look good." He refused to be suckered into dividing the discussion into "secular" and "spiritual" compartments or to allow for the "values" category. Everything is on Rick Warren's agenda, and that may be the reason even some secularists are looking to this evangelical leader for their cues.