On Saturday, Pastor Rick Warren hosts John McCain and Barack Obama for two hours of conversation at the Saddleback Church in California. Warren, one of the friendliest fellows I've ever met (and someone who is helping me design what we've taken to calling a "megagogue," which is to say, an enormous synagogue, including a bowling alley), spoke to me earlier this week about what he hopes to accomplish at his candidate forum. We also spoke about the challenge of evil on the international stage: He argued that the Iraq invasion was justified by Saddam Hussein's behavior, and he believes that America has a moral duty to intervene in cases of genocide.
Jeffrey Goldberg: What do you hope to get out of your summit meeting?
Rick Warren: The idea is really around civility. Can we disagree without being disagreeable? As the great theologian Rodney King said, "Can we all just get along?" That's the notion.
JG: So you're against blogging?
RW: Right now civility is a losing battle. It's easy to demonize from a distance. When people sit behind a screen they lose all civility. The anonymity makes people more ad hominem. One of my three life goals is to help restore civility to civilization. I just think the Internet has made us ruder.
JG: Small goal.
RW: All three of my goals are impossible, but I'm trying. To restore civility, to restore responsibility to individuals, getting people to stop playing victim. And to restore credibility to churches, because in many ways they've been co-opted by politics.
JG: How do you think Obama and McCain are doing on civility?
RW: Pretty good until this week.
JG: Who's doing worse?
RW: Honestly, behind the scenes, having dealt with both of these campaigns, the staffs take it much more harshly than the candidates themselves. There's a lot of ego in the campaigns. I would hope that maybe this is one little dam trying to keep things from bursting into total chaos. I've known both of these guys for a long time. They are exactly opposite of each other. Their worldviews, different styles of leadership, different views of the direction of America, but I happen to like both of them. What I want to do in the forum is maybe help America see some of the things that I see in each of them.
JG: Talk about one issue we've talked about before, genocide, and the American response to genocide. What are you, as a human, a Christian, and an American, commanded to do when you know a genocide is taking place, a documented genocide?
RW: In the Old Testament, it says that if you have the power to do something good, then you have to do it. You're not to avoid helping somebody in their time of need. Shoot, the Torah says that if you find a cow in a ditch you've got to help it out. Even if it's the enemy's cow, you've got to help it out. We've got this compassion fatigue in America. It's why we have a slow genocide going on in Darfur.
JG: So America has a duty to help.
RW: The answer is, we must do all we can. People say America is not the policeman of the world. We may not be, but the Bible says, if you have been blessed, then you are to care for people who can't care for themselves, you are to speak up for people who can't speak for themselves, and to defend the defenseless.
JG: Some people argue that we're not so great ourselves.
RW: The difference is that there are no death squads in America. The worst you can get here is that you can get blogged, you can get Lewinskied, on the Internet. There is a difference between that and living under oppression, living with fear for your life. That's why whether or not they found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is beside the point. Saddam and his sons were raping the country, literally. And we morally had to do something. If you have a Judeo-Christian heritage, you have to believe it when God says that evil cannot be compromised with. It has to be resisted, it has to be overcome.
JG: Talk about your forum with McCain and Obama. Obama seems to have different views on a whole range of subjects from you.
RW: I've got my personal opinions. I'm conservative, but I don't take sides. I have seen political differences turn into political hatred, and I've seen political hatred turn all of a sudden to, "My neighbor is Satan."
JG: I don't think you're naïve enough to think that McCain and Obama will be able to resist the temptation to go negative on each other over the next three months.
RW: Absolutely not. My goal is to get them to be civil for enough time so that we can get past the rhetoric. People will finally realize what Obama believes and what McCain believes. These two are fundamentally opposites.
JG: How do you describe these differences in concrete terms?
RW: People say that evangelicals haven't decided who to vote on. In their hearts many evangelicals think, "Neither of these guys is one of us." A person can be a Christian, believe in Jesus, without sharing the same worldview, and I think a lot of evangelicals say, "Barack may know the language, or McCain may know the language, but do they share my worldview?"
JG: Some people wonder why this event is happening in a church.
RW: I believe in the separation of church and state, but I do not believe in the separation of politics from religion. Faith is simply a worldview. A person who says he puts his faith on the shelf when he's making decisions is either an idiot or a liar. It's entirely appropriate for me to ask what is their frame of reference.