Rick Warren Entraps Obama and Romney

Rick Warren has offered to hold a presidential candidates' forum this fall at his Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. He held a similar event in August 2008 with candidates Barack Obama and John McCain. It made for an interesting evening, in part because the conservative McCain wasn't one to wear religion on his sleeve (if indeed he wears it anywhere) while the liberal Obama was openly trolling for white evangelical votes at the time, even without having much to offer them on abortion or other issues they cared deeply about.

This year's event, presuming the two campaigns agree to terms, could be even more awkward.

Warren's Orange County megachurch looks like the centerpiece of an especially snarky episode of "The Simpsons." The JumboTrons, the pop music, the faux-hip vernacular flowing from the stage (the word "pulpit" hardly does it justice), the sandals-shorts-and-Hawaiian-shirt brigade migrating from the massive Saddleback parking lot onto the church campus.

Culturally and politically, these are not Obama's people, which is why Amy Sullivan at the New Republic sees the invitation as a bit of a trap for the president.

True, Saddlebackers are largely white, conservative and religious. But a televised forum at an evangelical church contains at least as many trap doors for Romney as it does for Obama. Romney is far from eager to wave his religion in front of conservative Christians. Mormonism has dropped beneath personal taxes and Bain Capital LLC among the topics Romney most wants to avoid. But it's still high on the list.

Neither candidate may actually want to attend the forum -- but they should. One of the remarkable things about Saddleback, and churches like it, is how it creates its own social safety net -- and an extensive one at that -- providing everything from food donations and job counseling for the unemployed to social events for singles. The church's foreign policy is pretty compassionate, too, entailing significant aid to Africa. In many ways, it's an ideal venue for a discussion of government's role.

When I visited a few years ago, Warren preached of the Bible's command to care for the "strangers" among us, which he identified clearly as immigrants. More recently, Saddleback parishioners have invited Muslims to Christmas dinner and to interfaith picnics. (They'd better hope Michele Bachmann doesn't find out.)

It's doubtful that Saddleback and its spiritual environs hold many votes for Obama; perhaps he has nothing to gain from returning to the church. And Romney may prefer not to face questions about his religious beliefs. But if liberals and conservatives are going to learn to function together anytime soon, Saddleback looks like a far more promising venue than Capitol Hill.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)

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