August 19, 2008 -- The first 2008 presidential election event involving the presumptive nominees, Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Arizona Republican Senator John McCain, took place on August 16 at the SaddlebackChurch in Lake Forest, California. The event was moderated by that church’s pastor, Rick Warren, author of a pop-religion, how-to-improve-your-soul book entitled The Purpose-Driven Life.
Warren began by telling his in-house evangelical audience and Fox News Channel viewers that, “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.”
Well, not exactly. Some worldviews are based on careful and critical thinking, and observations about human nature and objective reality. They’re called philosophies. Others are based on—well—faith and at various points they dispense with the defining elements of the former. They’re called religions. And when one says, “I believe this because of a Christian/Muslim/Morman/Hindu/Wikkan/Scientologist revelation,” that’s usually a conversation stopper. But let’s turn to Pastor Warren’s mega-church’s mega-political event and use reason to cut through moral claims based on religion, to discover what the candidates’ worldviews are and what their implications might be.
Warren ’s format was to first question Obama for one hour, with McCain isolated so he could not hear Obama’s answers, and next to ask McCain the same questions.
The questions showed that both candidates share a fundamental moral belief about which they are both dead wrong: both disparage the self.
When asked about his greatest moral failing, Obama said that as a young man he abused drugs and alcohol. He then offered that, “What I trace this to is a certain selfishness on my part. I was so obsessed with me and the reasons I might be dissatisfied that I couldn’t focus on other people. And ... the process for me of growing up was to recognize that it’s not about me.”
Really? So concerns for ones self and for ones own needs logically can lead one to self-destruction through drugs? A very peculiar notion of self-love! Some might suggest that by “obsessed with self” Obama meant that short-term pleasures such as a booze-buzz could get in the way of ones long-term well-being. But he offered as the alternative to self-destruction a focus on other people. And when he says, “It’s not about me,” he’s speaking of his own life. That’s horrible!
Further, when asked what America’s greatest failing was, he said, referring to the Bible, “we still don’t abide by that basic precept in Matthew that whatever you do for the least of my brothers you do for me.” Not your own family and loved-ones first but for abstract others? He added, “This country, as wealthy and powerful as we are, still don’t spend enough time thinking about the least of these.”
Concerning meeting future challenges like the energy crisis, he said, “If we pretend that everything is free and there’s no sacrifice involved, then we are betraying the tradition of America.” He mentioned our soldiers who have fought in past wars. But there is a fundamental difference between those who risk their lives to preserve their own freedom as well as that of their country and those who would have us give up the whole point of freedom, which is for us to prosper and flourish rather than to suffer and sacrifice for some “common good.”
We have here a pretty clear view of Obama’s worldview: He’s an anti-individualist. He views individuals as morally virtuous to the extent that they look not to their own good, dreams, and lives but, rather, to others who, presumably, should not be looking to their own good, dreams, and lives but to those of others still, and so on in a senseless circle of sacrifice.
And it’s pretty clear how this worldview will inform Obama’s public policy decisions. He likes to say “We should” or “America should,” by which he means that politicians and government agents should spend our money and run our lives for us. When asked about the rights of the unborn, for example, he stated that he is pro-choice but not necessarily pro-abortion. He said that he’d like to make it easier for women to decide to keep their babies. How? Better health care and other welfare paid for by others.
When asked about who is rich, Obama fumbled around a bit before deciding on those who earn about $250,000 a year. He said those folks would have a tax increase under his administration in order to pay for education and the long list of government programs that have failed for decades.
Obama’s answers show that he really holds to a social religion, that the good is found in self-abnegation and giving to others.
Turning to John McCain, we find a similar sentiment on the self as Obama’s. Asked about America’s greatest moral failing, he said that, “throughout our existence, perhaps, we have not devoted ourselves to causes greater than our own self-interest.” He said that in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, rather than going shopping or going on a trip to boost the economy (a suggestion made by President Bush) that individuals should volunteer for the Peace Corps, Americorps, or the military. And when asked why he wants to be President he answered that he wants “to inspire a generation of Americans” to serve such greater causes.
This selfless silliness is ironic coming from McCain who, before he ran for President, supported more open immigration policies than did most Republicans. Surely he appreciated that immigrants today and throughout our existence didn’t come to America to “serve a cause greater than their self-interest.” Rather, they come here out of self-interest! They came to work their butts off to better their situation, to earn money, to raise their families with the hope of prosperity, so that they could go shopping and on vacations! In other words, self-interest is the morality on which America is based.
But McCain did distinguish himself from Obama in several crucial ways. For example, in addition to recommending we all join the Peace Corps, McCain noted his own service to the country in the military and in Congress. At least in such cases, McCain as an individual made his own choice to serve, in contrast to Obama’s collectivist “We should” and “Yes we can!” by which he means more of the same government welfare programs for which taxpayers are forced to pay.
Here we can cut through some of the sloppy use of language and moral contradictions found in most politicians by noting another point made by McCain. When asked if evil exists in the world, he cited Islamist extremists as our greatest threat. As an example of their evil he offered the recent incident of Al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq strapping explosives to two mentally handicapped women, sending them into a crowd, and detonating the explosives by remote control.
As observed above, we can appreciate that many who join the military do so not out of sacrifice in the deep, ugly sense but, rather, out of a deep desire to administer justice and a desire to defend us from evil. Such soldiers don’t sacrifice themselves for a cause greater than themselves but, rather, make a great cause part of themselves.
We also saw in McCain’s answer to “Who is rich?” a distinction from Obama. McCain said it doesn’t matter because he’s not interested in raising taxes. He doesn’t want to take money from the rich. He wants everyone to be rich. He added that the government’s problem has not been too few taxes but too much spending. (Whether that was a good reason for him to oppose President Bush’s tax cut is for the reader to decide!)
On other issues McCain also seemed to take the side of individual liberty and prosperity. He said that the most important issue about which he’s changed his mind is off-short oil drilling, which he now favors because of the energy crisis. At least he’s not exclusively calling on us all to walk to work and wear sweaters in the winter when there’s oil in the ground off our coasts.
Concerning schools, he called for “choice and competition.” Free markets are good! And when asked who he would look to for advice, he named Meg Whitman who grew Ebay from a small auction website with a handful of employees to a multi-billion dollar Internet success story. Entrepreneurs are good!
McCain was far from consistent. And in his public record he has often opposed individual liberty—his McCain-Feingold bill restricting political speech was a moral disgrace. But McCain’s inconsistencies concerning his call for us to find causes greater than ourselves suggest that at least some of his policies will empower the individual, compared to the more consistent Obama.
Edward Hudgins writes on political and social issues. He is the editor of Freedom to Trade: Refuting the New Protectionism, Space: The Free Market Frontier, and two books on postal service privatization. His latest collection is entitled An Objectivist Secular Reader. He is director of advocacy for The Atlas Society.