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The Real Reason Rick Warren Cancelled His Candidate Forum: His Increasing Irrelevance

Well, this is embarrassing. Last month, evangelical pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren announced that he was going to hold a forum at Saddleback Church with the presidential candidates. Warren hosted a similar event in 2008 with John McCain and Barack Obama, at which he interviewed each of the men separately in front of a large audience. The forum was covered by all the major media outlets, and Warren basked in his self-appointed role as America’s leading religious figure.

Yesterday, Warren declared that he was cancelling this year’s candidate forum because the presidential campaign had become too uncivil. It was a ridiculous excuse and a transparent attempt to save face. In reality, there was no event to cancel. 

The first sign that Warren has misjudged his influence should have been the fact that he never had a firm date for his forum. In the July conference call with reporters to announce his plans, Warren said that he still needed to finalize an exact date but was looking at the week of August 20. He also noted that while he had held favorable conversations with both campaigns, neither candidate had yet agreed to attend. By comparison, Warren only unveiled plans for the 2008 forum after weeks of intense negotiations with both sides and after getting commitments from both campaigns to participate. He also announced the scheduled date for the event.

Despite Warren’s efforts to make it seem as if he was selflessly cancelling an appearance with both presidential candidates in order to avoid contributing to a toxic political climate, the evidence strongly suggests that there wasn’t any Saddleback forum this time to cancel. The Associated Press reported this morning that neither campaign was planning on attending any event at Saddleback. Saddleback’s own events calendar does not list any candidate forum. (And lest you think a listing was removed when the forum was “cancelled,” the calendar does note that the cross-training fitness class originally scheduled for today has been cancelled.) 

According to a Fox News blog, “Romney campaign officials say the campaign had not accepted the invitation nor put it on any schedule. At the time the proposed Warren forum was first publicized, the Romney camp said it was not planning to attend.” There is also no evidence that the church held a public lottery for tickets to the forum, as Warren originally said in July. 

I have no doubt that somebody in Warren’s camp had a conversation with staff in the Obama and Romney campaigns at some point. But in the absence of an agreement, he appears to have simply broadcast his plans for a repeat performance of the 2008 event and expected that the candidates would come to him. It must have been quite the ego blow, then, to learn that Romney and Obama had reached an agreement to talk about matters of faith and religion in another forum—separate interviews with a little-known church quarterly, Cathedral Age, which is the official publication of the Washington National Cathedral. The interviews were made public yesterday, just hours before Warren pulled the plug on his own event.

The decision makes sense for both candidates. Romney has made clear that he wants to talk about his faith on his own terms, which the print interview allowed him to do. And Obama had a multitude of reasons to be wary of Warren, as I explained last month.

But if anyone in the Obama camp was feeling torn about skipping another Saddleback event, they have only to read Warren's comments to the Orange County Register yesterday to put their minds at ease. After rolling out the excuse that he couldn’t possibly hold a civility forum with such uncivil candidates, Warren explained that he would instead host a forum on religious freedom in September. That might ordinarily seem like a worthy, non-partisan endeavor. But “religious freedom” has unfortunately become this year’s “family values”—a phrase that is now code for “socially conservative issue.”

When asked by the OC Register reporter what he thought the candidates’ views on religious freedom were, Warren made it even more clear that he considers the issue from a partisan perspective. “President Obama’s policies clearly show what he values, and I have told him that I adamantly disagree with those particular policies,” said Warren. “I have not talked about this issue with Governor Romney, but I would imagine that as a Mormon he’d obviously understand the importance of protecting all religions against persecution and ensuring people’s rights to practice their conscience without government intervention.”

Got that? Without talking to Romney—or apparently investigating his positions on religious freedom at all—Warren can safely say he’s pretty sure they’d be on the same page. He hasn’t talked to Obama either, but judging the president by one policy, he can say that Obama doesn’t value religious freedom. Of course, I’m just assuming that the policy Warren refers to is the contraception mandate—he never specifies. Maybe he disagrees instead with Obama’s policy of letting faith-based organizations discriminate in their hiring when they use government funds. Or the Justice Department’s involvement in getting a court decision that declared the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional overturned.

For the past few years, Warren has scoffed at the idea that he has any real involvement in politics. With this latest episode, the California pastor has also proven that he is not a leader. A real leader doesn't respond to incivility in politics (the horror!) by throwing up his hands and cancelling a forum that he himself described as “a place where people of goodwill can seriously disagree on significant issues without being disagreeable or resorting to personal attack and name-calling.” And if that wasn’t the real reason he was cancelling the event, a real leader would swallow his pride and tell the truth.