We learned yesterday that Rick Warren is planning to host both presidential candidates at his Saddleback Church on August 16. It will be the first time the two presumptive nominees have met face-to-face, and probably the only time they’ll do so before the conventions.

Rev. Warren – ‘Pastor Rick’ to his flock – will interview them one-on-one, one at a time, but has promised to get them both on stage together for a brief moment and handshake. Expect to see full-throttle media coverage … ten bucks says CNN designs a special logo.

It’s interesting to see Rev. Warren get this close to partisan politics. In the past he has focused his energies – and that of his 20,000-plus weekly flock – on transcending-politics issues such as global poverty and the world AIDS crisis.

He did send around an e-mail shortly before the 2004 election outlining the five non-negotiable issues – abortion, stem cells, gay marriage, cloning and euthanasia – on which he hoped to hear ‘the right answers’ from the candidates of that year. But he later publicly regretted sending it, and he has appeared to studiously avoid any more dips into the political mud.

Along with mega-pastor colleagues Joel Osteen in Houston and Bill Hybels in the Chicago suburbs, Rev. Warren has appeared to shun overtly political talk in favor of real-life, practical Bible interpretation. They’re a far cry from the Falwell and Robertson of the ’80s and ’90s.

The goals he describes for this event don’t seem to include any endorsement, either explicit or implicit, and the fact that both candidates will appear means that neither will get a bump just from being seen at the church. Clearly Pastor Rick has been studying our election-year materials.

Of concern, though, are some of the local reactions the event has elicited. A quick sample, from the Orange County Register:

“We’re a Christian nation and we need Christian leaders” – Joy Blake, a Republican whose father owns a barber shop near Saddleback.

“Without question this country was established on Christian values and ethics so the candidates must share their religious values with this Orange County constituency.” – Rev. Mark Whitlock, Senior Minister at Christ Our Redeemer Church in nearby Irvine.

“Orange County is Republican headquarters. It will be interesting to see Senator Barack Obama in a Republican setting.” – Heather Truong, 27, of Costa Mesa.

Even if Rev. Warren studiously avoids picking a side or playing favorites, will his Orange County community see this visit as further proof that any successful candidate has to pay tribute to a “Christian Nation”? Are they aware that more than a fifth of Americans consider themselves something other than Christian? Will the citizens of Heather’s “Republican setting” be able to reconcile Sen. Obama’s Democratic label with his worn-on-the-sleeve faith practice?

I make no predictions, but it will be interesting to watch.

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