I'm not the least bit cynical about pastor Rick Warren's motivation in inviting John McCain and Barack Obama to his Lake Forest megachurch for a public discussion Aug. 16. To the contrary, part of me is wildly hopeful that the pastor-author will bring out things in both presidential candidates that we've never heard before.
Confident it'll happen, no.
Rather than a "political" debate, starting at 5 p.m. Warren will talk to Obama for an hour and then McCain for an hour. The order was determined by a coin toss. That means no interruptions during the questions and answers, and I presume Warren will take pains not to let either candidate take shots at the other (especially McCain, because he gets the last word).
Warren has said he wants to probe the men's hearts and minds as a guide to how they might govern. Fabulous idea. Nuts-and-bolts politics can wait for another night.
But I just have a sinking feeling that Warren is the wrong guy for the job. And that Saddleback Church is the wrong venue.
The church started in 1980 and now claims more than 20,000 members. It is one of the country's most well known, helped immensely by the worldwide sales of Warren's 2002 book, "The Purpose Driven Life," which has been used by clergy and laymen alike as a Christian spiritual guide.
And I fear that'll be the undoing of the event.
Against the awesome backdrop of the church setting and with Warren asking the questions, will either candidate really open up his heart and mind? Especially if the questions start digging into personal faith and how it might affect the presidency?
It could happen only if Warren decides to go for it, to ask questions that go to each man's respective cores.
With an estimated 6,500 people expected to attend and an even larger Internet audience, would either man dare profess to non-reliance on a Higher Power? To periodic skepticism about how God works in their lives or ours? Or, heaven forbid, to an outright disbelief in God?
Of course not. Both have already professed belief.
Do the rest of us have any way to verify they're telling the truth? No.
Is it possible one or both just says that because they have to, in order to run for president? Yes.
On the other hand, it's certainly possible both men have a strong reliance on God in their daily lives and can easily express it. Rest assured neither Obama nor McCain will be caught off-guard by garden-variety religious questions.
So, will Warren content himself with garden-variety questions of faith? Questions that invite rehearsed answers?
Warren has consulted with religious, business and political leaders in preparation, says a spokeswoman for the public relations firm handling the forum. His questions, says Melany Ethridge, probably "will be focusing on leadership" and what factors influence the candidates at decision-making time. "That's where the faith thing would come in, I would think," she says.
Warren's "Purpose" bestseller alone could elicit tremendous give-and-take with the candidates.
For example, Warren writes that life's purpose is "far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind or even your happiness. It's far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose."
How about this as a first question for the candidates: "Do you believe that? If so, elaborate as you see fit."
In another section of the book, Warren asserts that earthly travails occur because God has a better, more perfect ending planned for us. "Your problems are not punishment," he writes. "They are wake-up calls from a loving God."
Imagine if Warren asked McCain, who was beaten and tortured during his 5 1/2 years in a Vietnamese prison camp, if he'd like to expound on that.
If McCain told the truth -- regardless of his answer -- it would be a fascinating insight.
Discussing life after death, Warren writes that "living to create an earthly legacy is a short-sighted goal. A wiser use of time is to build an eternal legacy. You weren't put on earth to be remembered. You were put here to prepare for eternity."
Wouldn't you love to hear two hugely ambitious men tackle that concept?
Of course, Warren could drop a variation of the non-believer bomb on them. He could ask whether an atheist could or should be president. He could ask each man if he believes everything in the Bible or has doubts. He could ask whether they adhere to religious beliefs intellectually or because of something more visceral.
In short, he could lead both into a far-ranging discussion of their belief systems. Surely he knows that would fascinate the audience. I'd pay good money to see such a forum.
But I suspect we need a more neutral broker than an evangelical preacher asking questions in a church.
No presidential candidate would possibly let his guard down, even for one second, when discussing issues of faith and earthly toil at Saddleback Church. Would he?
Dana Parsons' column appears Tuesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.