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A new-style evangelical pastor ascends the political stage

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Warren personally invited the two candidates – "friends of mine" – via their cellphones. His event at the Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, Calif., – the nation's fourth-largest church – has among its aims "helping the Church regain credibility and encouraging our society to return to civility."

"This is a critical time for our nation, and the American people deserve to hear both candidates speak from the heart – without interruption – in a civil and thoughtful format absent the partisan 'gotcha' questions that typically produce heat instead of light," Warren said on announcing the event, called a Saddleback Civil Forum.

His questions will focus on how the candidates lead and make decisions and will cover five topics: leadership, stewardship, worldview, compassion issues, and their vision for America.

"This can be important as a model for a religious leader who is bipartisan in reaching out to find out about candidates," says C. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, in Washington, which has criticized some uses of religion in the campaign. "He's putting himself on center stage at a critical moment, with a tremendous amount of responsibility riding on his shoulders."

There's little doubt the forum will capture a large audience. Many Evangelicals have been in a quandary over the election, not ready to embrace Senator McCain yet suspicious of Senator Obama. Millions of Americans are eager to get a more intimate look at the men vying to lead them. And Warren's stature among a broad spectrum of Christians and others who have read his books or signed onto his global mentoring program for churches (some 400,000) is itself a draw.

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