The New Yorker has an intriguing peek beneath the pulpit regarding the upcoming August 16th "Rumble Before the Humble" Obama/McCain forum with Rick Warren, wherein Warren characterizes his plan for the discussion along his evangelical lite theology. Think Human Resources meets a junior high civics class with a dash of ethics discussion.

The most thought-provoking quote came not from Warren, but from Don King, who was curiously included (yes, the juxtaposition is a bit jarring) giving advice to both candidates on presentation and theme. To wit:

“I would remind them that when the water was over the portholes and John Paul Jones’s ship was sinking, the British commanders yelled across the bow, ‘Do you surrender?’ and John Paul Jones retorted, ‘I have not yet begun to fight!’ Then I would take them to a town-hall meeting, where freedom echoed out through the chambers: ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ Now you’re getting like one fighter jumping on the other fighter and calling him out. You’re calling out the heritage of this nation.” He went on, “What you are selling is America. You’ve got excitement beyond belief.”

While that does play up to the jingoistic among us — and is bound to tick off cynics — King’s point that each candidate has a story to sell, and neither has done a good job of that the past few months is true. But one of them is doing a much more thorough and nuanced job than the other — the question is whether it will pay off come election time.

How does this tie into faith and evangelicals? I’m glad you asked. Via USNews:

…"Zanesville is Ground Zero for conservative evangelicals in Ohio," says Brinson, who, as founder of the voter registration organization "Redeem the Vote," knows a thing or two about where to find conservative Christians. It’s a place, he says, that is populated with just the kind of recently reliable Republican voters Obama has tried to woo with a strategy that Brinson and other Christian leaders say they have found remarkable.

"They’ve researched where the votes are, and they’ve thrown away the old Democratic playbooks," says Brinson, who is among the evangelical leaders the Obama camp has reached out to. "Instead of just relying on a large number of urban votes, they’re going to suburban areas and reaching out to a large number of conservatives." And so are Obama supporters: the religious political action committee Matthew 25 has already aired a pro-Obama ad on Christian radio in Colorado Springs, Colo., home of evangelical leader James Dobson of Focus on the Family, a harsh critic of the Democratic candidate.

Zanesville is one of the places where Brinson’s five-year-old nonprofit group found particularly fertile ground for signing up "people of faith," he says. His group registered more than 78,000 people nationwide in 2004 and was instrumental in boosting the ranks of conservative white Christian voters who helped President Bush win his second term. Redeem the Vote now touts its 70 million-plus E-mail list that targets evangelicals. Mike Huckabee used the list to help him win eight primary and caucus contests before ceding the race to presumed GOP nominee John McCain….

"The evangelical movement is changing," says a major McCain fundraiser. "It’s moving to a bigger place—it’s not just pro-life, but includes people who care deeply about homelessness, the environment, Darfur."

"This movement is the next generation," he said. "The question ‘Who is an evangelical?’ involves a much broader picture. And the guy who has been talking about faith is Obama." He predicted that the movement’s transformation would have an influence this election, but won’t fully play out until future contests….

The Obama team has done their homework so well that they are even making Tony Perkins nervous. What does this have to do with Rick Warren? He and the evangelical lite crowd have been sucking the flock — and by that I mean revenue stream — out the doors from former evangelical heavyweights like James Dobson and Pat Robertson, who have been left sputtering and sidelined. And they know it.

The funny thing is, Obama and Warren have already played this out once before, to both of their benefit for an AIDS conference that Warren initiated in 2006:

The invitation works perfectly for Obama. Through his autobiography The Audacity of Hope and his public statements, the Senator had already positioned himself as one of the rare potential Democratic Presidential candidates who can truly talk the Christian talk. Today’s speech can only reinforce that impression. Says Collin Hansen, an associate editor at the Evangelical monthly Christianity Today, " I think the Senator’s political team, or whoever’s making the decision, was smart to associate him with Warren. It suggests that there are Evangelical moderates that they can work with, or reach, or maybe even attract their votes."

The situation also enhances Warren’s standing. For years, Billy Graham was lambasted for inviting theological liberals — as well as people unpopular in the Evangelical South, like Martin Luther King, Jr. — to his crusades. He invariably responded that the attendees were endorsing his cause, not the other way around. Graham knew that he would alienate some co-believers, but they were people he was happy to alienate. He was in the business of leading evangelicalism back into the American mainstream by distinguishing it from hard-core fundamentalism, one of whose most irritating characteristics was "second-degree separation," a philosophy of ostracizing other Christians simply for dealing with people considered less spiritually pure. Graham’s national reputation flourished while that of his opponents suffered.

The last thing that political evangelicalism should do is play the fundamentalist to Warren’s Graham. There are those like David Kuo, the former second-in-command at George W. Bush’s faith-based office who expressed his frustrations in the recent book Tempting Faith, who feel that, as he puts it, "there is one camp [in Evangelicalism] who truly want to follow Jesus, and another, much narrower, the Christian political power brokers, who want to follow conservative politics." He thinks the latter will soon be exposed to the majority as wordly operators rather than God’s servants and shrivel away. He regards some of Warren’s more prominent critics this week as prime examples.

All of which made me wonder why McCain accepted the invitation for this forum. Until I stumbled across this little tidbit in the Dallas Morning News:

I sense little white evangelical enthusiasm for McCain, and don’t expect a serious get out the vote effort from evangelicals for him….

This from an evangelical scholar in Georgia. Given the importance of the evangelical phone tree calls for GOP GOTV operations the last few years, that is a HUGE problem for McCain. Because he is already way behind the curve in ground game and organization as it is.

And given that the GOP is already losing among younger voters and, frankly, voter rolls overall have dropped for the GOP for the fourth straight year, barely holding their own among evangelicals who used to be a sure thing, and falling apart at the seams with folks who are worried about the economy — which is pretty much everyone including those now impacted by richflation woes.. Just who will be pulling that Republican voting lever in November and beyond it?

The funny thing is, it was the evangelical zeal of folks like Monica Goodling which have helped to tarnish the old GOP brand of "Christian political soldiers" with a whole host of folks in America who don’t like purity tests mixing in their everyday jobs and lives. Plus, Karl Rove and Ralph Reed’s brand of using the flock doesn’t age well on exposure. Won’t it be interesting to watch this play out over the next few years?

(YouTube — Pastor Rick Warren talks with CNN about the upcoming "Civil Forum On Leadership And Compassion" on August 16th. It really is all about the marketing these days, isn’t it?)