Like many of you, I watched the interviews of John McCain and Barack Obama at the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency. I did not eagerly await the event, but in hindsight I thought that Rick Warren did a great service to all of us by hosting the interviews. The unusual format allowed us to hear the candidate’s ‘answer’ while simultaneously gaining insight into their worldviews and thinking processes. And while many have tried to distinguish and describe the differences between McCain and Obama along party and other lines (right/left, old/young, experienced/inexperienced), the real and most striking difference between the two men is obvious to me. The real difference is simply how both men recognize and understand ‘truth’. Not WHAT they understand to be true, but HOW they understand truth. Let me explain.
McCain is a ‘modern’ objectivist while Obama is a ‘postmodern’ relativist. McCain comes from a generation that accepts the existence of objective truth. Some things are right, some things are wrong. Some things are good, some things are evil. Some things are true, some things are false. And in addition to this, McCain, as a modernist, believes that it is possible to KNOW the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, truth and error to enough sufficiency to be able to take a stand and call something true. To modernists like McCain, truth is exclusive (and unapologetically so)! It’s not arrogant to believe that you hold the truth and call it like it is. Obama, on the other hand, comes from a generation that has been profoundly influenced by the ‘Academy’ (the philosophical skepticism advanced in our universities today) and has learned that all truth is relative to the person or persons who hold it (‘what’s true for you isn’t necessarily true for me’). In this ‘postmodern’ environment of relativism, it is arrogant to think that your truth can be applied to everyone else. ‘Humility’ and acceptance are of the greatest importance, and all competing views (being ‘equally true’) must be valued and embraced.
This difference between the two candidates was no more striking than in their response to questions about abortion and the existence of evil. When Warren asked, “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?”, Obama began a long exploration of possible responses:
“Well, I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade. But let me just speak more generally about the issue of abortion because this is something I — obviously, the country wrestles with. One thing that I’m absolutely convinced of is that there is a moral and ethical element to this issue. And so I think anybody who tries to deny the moral difficulties and gravity of the abortion issue, I think, is not paying attention. So that would be point number one. But point number two: I am — I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade. And I come to that conclusion not because I’m pro-abortion but because, ultimately, I don’t think women make these decisions casually. I think they wrestle with these things in profound ways, in consultation with their pastors, or their spouses, or their doctors [and] their family members. And, so for me, the goal right now should be — and this is where I think we can find common ground — and by the way, I’ve now inserted this into the Democratic Party platform — is: how do we reduce the number of abortions? Because the fact is is that, although we’ve had a President who is opposed to abortion over the last eight years, abortions have not gone down. And that, I think, is something that we have to ... (Warren interrupts and asks if Obama has ever voted to limit or reduce abortions) Well, I am in favor, for example, of limits on late-term abortions if there is an exception for the mother’s health. Now, from the perspective of those who, you know, are pro-life, I think they would consider that inadequate, and I respect their views. I mean, one of the things that I’ve always said is is that on this particular issue, if you believe that life begins at conception — and you are consistent in that belief — then I can’t argue with you on that because that is a core issue of faith for you.”
From a postmodern position of relativism, there are oh so many perspectives that may provide us with an equally valid view of ‘truth’ (i.e. the theological perspective, the scientific perspective, the perspective of pastors, the perspective of spouses, the perspective of doctors and the perspective of family members, to name just a few). As a relativist, Obama is uncomfortable and unwilling to decide between these possible views. While he clearly takes a pro-choice position personally, he says (at least) that he is uncomfortable declaring that the pro-life position is wrong (“…if you believe that life begins at conception — and you are consistent in that belief — then I can’t argue with you on that because that is a core issue of faith for you.”) As long as you are consistent (or sincere) in your view, Obama feels that he can’t argue with you, and implicit in this kind of thinking is also the idea that if Obama is consistent and sincere in HIS opposing view, you really can’t argue with him either.
Now let’s look at McCain’s response to Warren’s question (“At what point does a baby get human rights?”):
“At the moment of conception. I have a 25-year pro-life record in the Congress, [and] in the Senate. And as President of the United States, I will be a pro-life President, and this Presidency will have pro-life policies. That’s my commitment; that’s my commitment to you.”
Now forget about how you may feel about the issue itself. Look only at how McCain’s response reveals his worldview related to the modernist notion that truth is objective. He has decided that regardless of all the possible perspectives, there is one ‘truth’. He has no problem stating what he believes succinctly and unapologetically. He’s not concerned about those who disagree; McCain simply believes that they are ‘wrong’. He is a true modernist in his view of the nature of truth. Some things are right, some things are wrong. Some things are true, some things are false.
Warren also asked each candidate a question about ‘evil’. “Does evil exist and if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?” Obama once again answered from his postmodern, relativistic worldview:
“Evil does exist. I mean, I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. And I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely. And one of the things that I strongly believe is that, you know, we are not going to, as individuals, be able to erase evil from the world; that is God’s task. But we can be soldiers in that process, and we can confront it when we see it. Now, the one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil because, you know, a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we were trying to confront evil.” (Warren asked, “In the name of good?”) “In the name of good. And I think, you know, one thing that’s very important is having some humility in recognizing that, you know, just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.”
Obama admits that evil exists but then immediately argues that evil is everywhere. He is hesitant to declare that any one evil is actually ‘more’ evil than any other; Darfur is evil, but no more evil than what is happening on our own streets. When everything is evil, it’s hard to declare that anything is evil. For this reason, we need to have some humility when we claim to know what evil is, and how we should confront it. Relativism demands that we recognize and embrace the idea that ‘what’s good to you is evil to someone else’.
McCain answers the same question as a true modernist. When asked, “Does evil exist and if so, should we ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it or defeat it?”, he simply says:
He then goes on the clearly define what the ‘it’ is (radical Islamic terrorism) and he has no hesitation in calling it as he sees it. He clearly believes (as a modernist) that some things are evil and some are not. This rather simple and objective view of the truth allows him to identify it squarely, and then call for action.
In general, McCain’s answers were far more direct, decisive and concise than Obama’s throughout the interviews. Some have said that this was due to McCain’s effort to stick to his trite campaign talking points, while Obama made an effort to transparently present himself as the thoughtful, reasonable, insightful candidate. Some pundits have actually accused McCain of eavesdropping on the questions and cheating (thus accounting for his direct answers in opposition to Obama’s less direct answers). The real difference, however, was simply their worldview related to the nature of truth. McCain and Obama demonstrate and represent the cultural battle between modernism and postmodernism.
Interestingly, most people admit that McCain outperformed Obama dramatically. This may be good news not only for the Republican Party or for right leaning voters, but also for those of us in the culture who value and hold the modernist view of truth. While the ‘Academy’ continues to promote a form of philosophical skepticism that has produced a faulty relativistic postmodern notion of truth, most of us continue hold to the classic view that truth and error, good and evil, still exist in our world.