Let me confess that I believed from the beginning that the so-called “Faith Forum” held on Aug. 16 at the Saddleback Church in California and hosted by its pastor, Rick Warren, was a bad idea.

First, the idea that the two major candidates for president can be summoned to the church of a prominent pastor to kiss his ring and receive his blessing violates both my commitment to the separation of church and state and the kind of communal humility the church ought to demonstrate.

Second, the whole idea of a “faith forum” is a violation of at least the spirit of Article VI of the United States Constitution, which says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” We have now reached a place in American society where it would be simply impossible for a person who is not a practicing Christian to make a serious run for president, or for lesser offices in most places in our country. Not only must a candidate be a practicing Christian, but he or she must be willing to talk about religious faith endlessly.

Now the whole exercise is coming unglued on Pastor Warren. As it turns out, he came out before an audience in his church and aired live on CNN and promised that because the candidates spoke to him one at a time and Sen. Barack Obama went first based on a coin-flip, “We have safely placed Senator McCain in a cone of silence.”

At the time, Warren did not describe what that bizarre term meant, but his later question to McCain, “Was that cone of silence comfortable?” and McCain’s humorous reply, “I was trying to hear through the walls,” implied that McCain had been taken to a room where he had no access to the conversation between Obama and Warren, so that there would be no advantage to going second.

In a published interview with BeliefNet.com, Warren specifically stated that “That room was totally free, with no monitors.”

This promise has come unraveled, as it has been revealed that McCain was not in any such room for at least the first half of Obama’s portion of the forum. Instead, he was in a vehicle travelling from the airport to the church.

In front of his church and a television audience, Warren said something that was not true. Whether he knew McCain was not at the church but said he was anyway, or he simply had no idea where McCain was but claimed he did know, there is no way around the conclusion that he lied.

On an interview with Larry King two days after the forum, Warren acknowledged that he knew 10 minutes before the debate that McCain had not arrived, but that he just “figured” they had put him in the isolated “green room” by the time it started.

In the face of contrary evidence, Warren has now backed off of the “cone of silence” claim, but argues that McCain’s whereabouts do not matter. During an interview on CNN on Aug. 17, he said that “we flat out asked” and the McCain campaign “confirmed that McCain did not hear or see any of the broadcast.”

Further, Warren assured that “I trust the integrity of both” and that he “knew they would abide by the rules.” Suddenly the whole idea of an assured “cone of silence” was gone, replaced by the personal honor system.

Warren tried to pass this change in his story off with a joke that “he [McCain] was in the cone of a Secret Service motorcade.” Many seemed to assume that because he was traveling in a vehicle at the time that McCain or his aides travelling with him would not have had access to Obama’s part of the forum, but were quickly reminded that the forum was being broadcast on the radio and in formats that could be viewed live on cell phones and other personal communication devices.

To this idea on the Larry King interview, Warren made an even stranger claim that the presence of the Secret Service ensured that McCain had not received any information about the forum. He seems completely unaware that the Secret Service agents would not say anything even if they had witnessed a violation of the forum rules. It is not their job to enforce the rules of his forum, or even to know what they are. Their only job is to protect the person they are assigned to. Caught in his lie, Warren is now obfuscating in every way he can.

It is hard to say where this story will go now. It could fizzle out if no new information surfaces. What I believe is certain is that Warren needs to apologize to the candidates and his audience, first, for not telling the truth, and second, for arguing, after he was caught not telling the truth, that the truth does not really matter.

The first “Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency” was a bad idea from the start, and Warren and his church proved ill-equipped to handle it. Let’s hope it was the last.

Mark McEntire is associate professor of religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

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