Rick Warren is in a place he never expected to be: at the center of a culture war.
The pastor chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to give the inaugural invocation backed Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in his home state of California. But he did so belatedly, with none of the enthusiasm he brings to fighting AIDS and illiteracy.
When other conservative Christians held stadium rallies and raised tens of millions of dollars for the ballot effort, there was no sign of Warren. Neither he nor his wife, Kay, donated any of their considerable fortune to the campaign, according to public records and the Warrens’ spokesman.
In fact, his endorsement seemed calculated for minimal impact. It was announced late on a Friday, just 10 days before Election Day, on a Web site geared for members of his Saddleback Community Church, not the general public.
For gay rights advocates, that strategy was nothing more than an attempt to mask Warren’s prejudice. They were outraged that Obama decided last week to give a place of honor to a pastor they consider a general for the Christian right.
Lost in the uproar was the irony of Warren’s plight. Ever since he began his climb to prominence in the 1980s, he has battled complaints from fellow evangelicals that he isn’t nearly conservative enough.
“The comments from many of the evangelicals further to the right of him are often critical for his lax stance on their passionate issues,” said Scott Thumma, a professor at Connecticut’s Hartford Seminary who researches megachurches and writes about the challenges for gay and lesbian Christians.
On paper, Warren might look like any other religious traditionalist. He is the son of a Southern Baptist pastor, graduate of a Southern Baptist seminary, and his megachurch in Orange County is part of the conservative denomination.
But Warren holds a different worldview than his roots suggest.
He has spoken out against the use of torture to combat terrorism. He has joined the fight against global warming and, encouraged by his wife, has put his prestige and money behind helping people with AIDS. The Warrens have done so at a time when a notable number of conservative Christians still consider the virus a punishment from God.
“If you want to save a life, I don’t care what your background is and I don’t care what your political party is,” Warren said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. “I think some of these humanitarian issues transcend politics, or ethnic or religious beliefs.”
While many religious conservatives openly condemn Islam as inherently evil, Warren reaches out to the American Muslim community. This past Saturday, he gave the keynote address at the convention of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, based in Los Angeles.
“His social consciousness is somewhat left of center, but his theological, ethical stance is right of center,” said the Rev. William Leonard, a critic of the Southern Baptist Convention and dean of Wake Forest Divinity School in North Carolina. “That’s the thing that makes him potentially a bridge person.”
Warren’s outlook has come at a price. Many from the Christian right don’t trust him.
A registered independent who does not endorse candidates, he has called old guard evangelical activists too partisan and overly focused on gay marriage and abortion.
In the run-up to the Saddleback forum he led last August with Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain, those giving Warren the most grief were conservatives. They were convinced he wouldn’t be tough enough on Obama. (Obama wound up stumbling in his appeal to religious voters while answering Warren’s question about when a baby gets human rights. Obama said it was “above his pay grade” to respond “with specificity.”)
“For probably the last 25 years, evangelicalism became co-opted, and for most people it became a political term,” Warren said. “And it got identified with a certain style of political leanings.”
The attacks on Warren stretch to how he presents the Gospel – watered-down and soft, according to his theologically traditional critics.
Warren’s phenomenal best-seller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” which has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, partly reflects the self-help ethos of baby boomers, although he insists it isn’t an advice book and he defends its religious content.
Still, the tone of his writing is deliberate. Warren, 54, is among a generation of pastor-CEOs who use marketing studies, polling and census data to create congregations that will attract people who never go to church. One of Warren’s most important mentors was the late Peter Drucker, considered the father of modern management.
Warren started Saddleback with one other family in 1980 in California, a state with one of the lowest percentages of churchgoers in the country. Saddleback now draws more than 22,000 worshippers each week.
As the church grew, so did the critiques. “The pioneers get the arrows,” he says.
Warren survives the pounding partly because of his personal integrity. He donates 90 percent of his many millions in book royalties back to the church. He says he stopped taking a salary from Saddleback six years ago. No scandals have tainted his ministry.
He is also one of the savviest leaders among his peers.
His speaking invitations range from church groups to the Davos World Economic Forum and the United Nations. Saddleback’s reach is now so broad, it’s nearly its own denomination.
Warren provides sermons, study materials and guidance to hundreds of thousands of clergy worldwide through pastors.com and his other Web sites. Warren’s “40 Days of Purpose” spiritual campaigns have been conducted in more than 20,000 churches, and he recently joined forces with Reader’s Digest to launch a multimedia global juggernaut based on his “Purpose Driven” writing.
Now he is trying to revolutionize faith-based humanitarian work through his P.E.A.C.E. program. It unites local churches, businesses and governments to fight poverty and disease, promote peace, and combat what he calls spiritual emptiness. The pilot project for this effort began in 2005 in Rwanda, which has been dubbed the first “purpose-driven nation.”
It is no surprise that he and Obama have become friendly. Each tries to operate outside a strict liberal-conservative divide, and has risked angering his supporters to do so.
“You can’t have a reformation without somebody opposing it,” Warren says. “If I wasn’t making a difference, nobody would be paying attention.”
Associated Press Writer Lisa Leff contributed to this report.