In November, as we look back on the results of the 2008 presidential contest, I suspect that we’ll conclude that Aug. 16 was the day that Barack Obama lost the race.
At the Saddleback Civic Forum on the Presidency, evangelicals had their chance to meet Mr. Obama and to compare his brand of Christianity to theirs. When Mr. Obama said: “Jesus Christ died for my sins, and…I am redeemed through him,” the evangelical audience was on the same page.
Pastor Rick Warren then posed his question about abortion - a pivotal issue for evangelical Christian and Catholic voters alike - this way: “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?” It was a question of how Mr. Obama’s faith would inform his conscience and his policy. The Illinois senator’s answer - “Answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade” - fell flat, both because it seemed to many people to be a casual answer to a very serious question, and because it simply did not connect with a Christian audience for whom it is an article of faith that God is the author of life.
Every member of the congregation sitting in that church could recite the familiar passage from Jeremiah 1:5 by heart: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you.” Or Psalm 139: “I formed you in your mother’s womb.” In fact, Mr. Warren quoted that psalm a day after the Saddleback Forum, shortly after saying “to just say ‘I don’t know’ on the most divisive issue in America is not a clear enough answer for me.”
Taking the “I don’t know” approach is quite different from the one commonly used by pro-choice Catholics like former New York Governor Mario Cuomo, who begins by stating a personal belief shared by most Catholics and evangelicals, that abortion is wrong, but then offers not to “impose” his belief as a public official. This formulation is popular among pro-choice Catholics of both parties, from Democrats Joe Biden and Kathleen Sebelius to Republicans Tom Ridge and Susan Collins.
But Mr. Obama conspicuously declined to say abortion is wrong, saying simply, “I believe in Roe v. Wade.” The clear implication was that he doesn’t believe that abortion is wrong. Throughout the primary season, he had been speaking about faith in a way that had Catholics and evangelicals listening carefully.
But this time, the message didn’t resonate. He professed an interest in addressing the question, “how do we reduce the number of abortions?” But he made no effort to explain why they should be reduced, saying only that “there is a moral and ethical element to this issue.”
Then, Mr. Obama added, “if you believe that life begins at conception… then I can’t argue with you on that because that is a core issue of faith for you.”
But it’s a scientific fact, not an “issue of faith,” that each human being’s life begins at conception. To suggest, as he did, that it is more a matter of theology than biology was hardly the sympathetic attitude that this audience was looking for. Instead of connecting with them, he may well have alienated many of them.
The real question, posed precisely by Mr. Warren, is when “does a baby get human rights?” But even if there is disagreement over precisely when those rights should be recognized, can there really be any doubt when a baby is just weeks away from delivery? Why must late-term abortions remain free from restrictions?
Mr. Obama understands the issue as well as anyone in America - and better than most. While he was a student at Harvard Law School, he did research for Lawrence Tribe, when the well-known law professor was writing “Abortion: The Clash of Absolutes.”(Mr. Tribe thanks him warmly, by name, in the book.)
Mr. Obama’s words at Saddleback and actions as a legislator leave no doubt about where he stands. He opposed a partial-birth abortion bill that passed in the Senate by a 2-1 margin, and later criticized the Supreme Court for upholding the law. As an Illinois state senator, he was among a handful of legislators who opposed a state version of the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. And he has promised that the first thing he’d do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act, eliminating all existing restrictions on abortion, including the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding.
Saddleback provided a unique opportunity for Mr. Obama. Evangelicals have been very conscious of his having made a deliberate decision to embrace Christianity. But many had been uneasy about Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s espousal of Black Liberation Theology. They were listening for reassurance on Aug. 16, but heard something quite different.
As a result, I think we may look back and find that Mr. Obama’s inroads among evangelicals and Catholics ended at Saddleback.