The general election has begun, and ground zero was a Christian evangelical megachurch.

Voters had the first opportunity to see the candidates in the same
forum with the same questions asked by a neutral and morally informed
pastor.

“We believe in the separation of church and state, but
we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics because
everyone has a world view,” Warren said to cheers of the crowd from the
pews of his church in Lakeforest, Calif., at the start of the forum.

This was entirely different than anything we’ve seen until now.

Their contest has until now been waged via TV ads, campaign memos, conference calls and stump speeches, but not in person…

Warren’s format took the candidates off their usual talking points.
The event was intended to allow the candidates to engage in a kind of
long-form discussion with Warren that would not be permitted under the
time constraints of a traditional presidential debate.

A few questions and their answers:

With 40 million abortions, which Warren said some people would call
“a holocaust”, he asked each candidate point-blank at what point they
believe a baby deserves rights.

Sen. Obama said the issue has many complexities, and then followed
with this: “Answering that question with specificity is above my pay
grade. There’s a moral and ethical dimension to this question.” He said
“I am pro-choice, but not pro-abortion. If you believe life begins at
conception, then I can’t argue with you because that’s a core belief.”

Sen. McCain (without a second’s hesitation): “At the moment of
conception.” Period. When it appeared that Warren was moving on after
such a decisive answer, McCain asked if the issue of judges would come
up later, because “we need to talk about the importance of judges” and
he wanted to bring it up in relation to the abortion issue. Warren
assured him they would get back to judges.

Warren asked each candidate which sitting Supreme Court justice they would not have nominated.

Obama: Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia.

McCain: Ginsberg, Breyer, Souter….and Stevens. “I believe judges
should be applying the Constitution, not legislating from the bench.”

Warren: “Does evil exist? And if so, do we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?”

Obama: “It does exist, and it has to be confronted squarely…It
exists in places like Darfur, and even on our own streets…A lot of evil
has been perpetrated in the name of good.”

McCain (emphatically): ”Defeat it.” We are facing the trandscendent
challenge of our time, especially in radical Islamic extremism. When
terrorists strap explosives on women who are mentally impaired, send
them into a crowded marketplace and detonate the bombs, that’s evil. We
face this trhreat throughout the world.

Warren asked them both about their views on same-sex marriage.

Obama: “I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman…and God
is in the mix. It’s a sacred union.” However, there’s a place for civil
unions in society.

McCain: “I strongly believe in preserving the status of marriage
between a man and a woman.” People can enter into legal agreements
though, he added, and have all civil rights.

Warren: “Why do you want to be president?”

Both men talked about their views of America.

Obama also said “America is broken. We can improve on where we’ve been these days.”

McCain said he wants “to serve a cause higher than ourselves…Americans need hope. I’ll always put my country first.”

Obama emphasized, sincerely and firmly: “We will get the president
we need. I trust the American people” to make the right choice.

This was by far the best event of the presidential election year,
the voters’ chance to finally hear the men who would be president
frankly answer questions that would not allow talking points or
‘handling’ by staffers. They were themselves, exposed and spontaneous.

It may have been a risk, but it certainly had its rewards for both campaigns.

And for Americans who have waited to hear morally informed voices in
the public square, and its role in the nation’s highest office.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....