Aug 23, 2012

The new irrelevance of Rick Warren

There's something really about odd Rick Warren's explanation for why he's cancelled the planned Obama-Romeny forum. The megachurch pastor and best-selling author had announced he would reprise his role as presidential job interviewer, but now he won't.

"We created the civil forums to promote civility and personal respect between people with major differences .... The forums are meant to be a place where people of goodwill can seriously disagree on significant issues without being disagreeable or resorting to personal attack and name-calling. But that is not the climate of today's campaign."
Isn't this completely backwards, though? There's a lack of civility, so the forum is supposed to promote civility, but there isn't civility, so the forum is cancelled. But if what the forum was intended to accomplish were a fiat accompli, then what would be the point?

It's a strange argument.

One suspects something else must be going on.
Perhaps it's the politics of a Warren interview event for the respective campaigns. There was a report the campaigns nixed the thing, not Warren, and he's announcing he's cancelling it as a way to save face.

One could see how the whole thing would be just problematic for Obama and Romney. Neither of them really stood to gain. Obama would likely face hostile questions on same-sex marriage, which came up last time, when Obama's position was much more amenable to Warren than it is now. And abortion again too. These aren't the issues Obama is campaigning on, and his answers are not likely to swing any voters or motivate any of those in Warren's audience in his direction. At best, I guess, Obama could placate social conservatives, though it's hard to see how that happens. For Romney, too, the possible pitfalls seem much more serious than the potential gains. He could face hostile questions about his Mormonism. He could get attacked on his inconsistent record on social conservative issues, or even the current positions he espouses such as abortion being acceptable in cases of rape. It's hard to see how Warren steers the conversation towards the topics Romney wants to talk about.

It seems that the sense is that this campaign will not be won on the kinds of issues Warren cares about. But it could be lost on those issues.

Another way to think about what's going on here is that Warren just has failed to make himself a plausible public gate keeper. A certain amount of neutrality is necessary for one to be a respectable, acceptable host of a forum. When Warren was positioning himself as a "post-culture war" kind of evangelical, who took a more liberal position on issues such as the environment or AIDs in Africa, there was at least an argument he'd be even-handed in his criticism of the candidates. As someone more publicly associated with opposition to California's Proposition 8 and saying that Obama administration's policies amount to a "crumbling of our constitution's first guaranteed freedom: the freedom of religion," he doesn't seem like someone who's going to be good at facilitating a conversation. He doesn't seem to be moving past the culture war in any meaningful way.

The loser here is Warren, given that he still seems to want to be a power player, a power broker and king maker. His position as religious authority on the public square has evaporated in the last four years. Whether it's the politics that have changed or Warren himself, his ability to exert an influence here is gone.

Maybe he's not the only loser, though. I thought that, in the last election, the respective candidates' answers to Warren's question about evil were maybe the most interesting and really the clearest things said about underlying, governing philosophies.

While it's ridiculous and ahistorical to think this campaign is somehow dirtier or more aggressive than others, or more that way than ever, that doesn't mean it couldn't be better. It would have been nice to hear the candidates try to thoughtfully answer some big, fundamental questions. If Warren could have done that, it could have been a good thing.