USA TODAY asked five religion and ethics experts to observe the forum broadcast.
They noted sharp differences when Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., asked each candidate when life and human rights begin.
McCain succinctly replied, “At conception.”
Obama said, “Whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is above my pay grade.”
Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and now public policy director for the diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., called the comment a “dodge that wasn’t even intellectually respectable.”
The Rev. Mark Coppenger of Evanston, Ill., a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, called Obama’s reply “specious. Obama has made that very determination in opening the law wide to the killing of the unborn.”
But R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Obama’s view echoed the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. It “specifically says that neither biologists nor doctors nor theologians can agree upon the moral status of the fetus.”
She said McCain’s view on conception was inconsistent with his support of embryonic stem cell research.
“If he believes in human rights at the moment of conception, then he ought to be against embryonic stem cell research, IVF (in vitro fertilization) and even the so-called rhythm method.”
Warren asked each candidate what Jesus meant to him. Both gave the essential Christian response that Jesus is the savior who redeems them.
Still, the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest and fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C., called the very question “inappropriate.”
And Rabbi James Rudin of New York City, former Interreligious Affairs director for the American Jewish Committee, wondered “why there were not representatives from other faith communities who are also voting. This is a multi-religious nation.”
During the evening, Obama often drew on biblical lines, citing passages in Matthew and paraphrasing the prophet Micah. McCain turned more to mentions of prayer and personal stories of Christian witness in action.
Charles Huettner of Alexandria, Va., who calls himself an “independent Christian voter,” concluded, “Sen. Obama spoke to the heart and mind, where Sen. McCain spoke from the heart and mind.”