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Obama talks religion at forum

From NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
LAKE FOREST, CA -- Obama talked about Iraq, abortion, the Supreme Court, and his greatest moral failure during an hour-long televised talk on faith and politics with pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren here at Saddleback Church.

McCain also attended the event, but he spoke with Warren separately. After Obama's hour was over, the presumptive Republican nominee came on stage and greeted his rival. The two men shook hands and gave each other a pat on the back as the crowd applauded.

"We believe in the separation of church and state, but we do not believe in the separation of faith and politics, because faith is just a worldview and everybody has some kind of worldview and it's important to know what they are," said Warren, the author of the mega-hit book "A Purpose Driven Life," at the opening of the forum.

The diverse crowd, which the church said reached 2,200 people in the sanctuary and another 4,200 watching from satellite locations, applauded throughout the forum and laughed frequently as Obama tackled questions from identifying his biggest moral failure and a time he broke with his party to achieve something for the common good -- he cited his work with McCain on ethics reform -- to his views on marriage, evil, and how to tackle global problems like genocide and human trafficking. Notably, both men were tieless.

Much of the discussion involved issues the presidential hopeful has addressed extensively throughout the long primary campaign and on the stump since. In fact, as he began a section on domestic policy, Warren made a point of asking the senator not to recycle his stump speech in response. Obama responded by joking that he had been campaigning for a long time and his answers throughout the event were careful and hit many of his usual political themes.

For instance, when asked to talk about the most gut-wrenching decision he had ever had to make, Obama used the opportunity to point to an issue that helped him make a name for himself. "I think the opposition to the war in Iraq was as tough a decision as I've had to make -- not only because there were political consequences but also because Saddam Hussein was a real bad person and there was no doubt that he meant America ill. But I was firmly convinced at the time that we did not have strong evidence of weapons of mass destruction."

The senator cited welfare reform as the most significant issue in the last 10 years on which he had changed his mind, explaining that he had worried the reform efforts -– which sought to move people off welfare rolls to work -– would be a disaster, but that it had turned out much better than he had anticipated and he was convinced that work must be a centerpiece of any social policy.

He said his teen drug use was his greatest moral failure and not doing enough to remedy inequalities was the country's greatest moral failure. He also spoke several times about the importance of humility and he talked about what his faith in Jesus Christ means to him on a daily basis. "I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through him. That is a source of strength and sustenance on a daily basis," he said. "I know that I don't walk alone."

Obama has been able to appeal to some religious voters in part, because he seems more open to talking about his faith than McCain does. He has written about finding his faith as a young man and about his work with churches while a community organizer on the streets of Chicago's South Side. Still, for many conservative Christians, the senator's views on issues like abortion make him a tough sell.

When Warren asked at what point a baby gets human rights, Obama did not provide a timeframe and instead focused on finding common ground, which he defined as working across ideological lines to reduce the number of abortions -- a goal he said he had inserted into the Democratic Party platform.

"Whether you're looking at it from a theoretical or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade," Obama began. "If you believe that life begins at conception and you are consistent in that belief, then I can't argue with you, because that is a core issue of faith for you. What I can do is say, are there ways that we can work together to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies?"

Two interesting moments came when the pastor asked Obama to define "rich." After joking with Warren about the pastor having sold over 25 million books, Obama said families making up to $150,000 were middle class, if not poor -- depending on where they live -- while those with incomes of $250,000 or more were well off, though he did not use the word "rich".

When asked which sitting Supreme Court justice he would not have nominated, Obama named first Clarence Thomas and then Antonin Scalia, saying he disagreed with both ideologically and that Thomas had not been a "strong enough jurist or legal thinker" at the time of his nomination.

Warren told the audience at the beginning of the event that the senators would be asked identical questions so that the audience could "compare apples to apples" and said they had "safely placed Sen. McCain in a cone of silence" to prevent his receiving any advantage by being second.