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Opinion: Rick Warren, Evangelical Statesman

Which Direction is He Leading?


Contact: Loralei Coyle 202-682-4131, 202-905-6852 cell, lcoyle@TheIRD.org; Radio Interviews: Jeff Walton, jwalton@TheIRD.org; both with the Institute on Religion and Democracy


OPINION, August 15 /Christian Newswire/ -- The following opinion article is submitted by Alan Wisdom:

At Saturday's presidential candidates' forum--the first joint appearance of Barack Obama and John McCain in the 2008 campaign--the most interesting man on stage may be neither of the two candidates. It may be Rick Warren, the megachurch pastor and author of the best-selling Purpose-Driven Life. Warren will be asking all the questions in back-to-back hour-long interviews with Obama and McCain, telecast nationally from the pastor's 23,000-member Saddleback Church in southern California.

Obama's and McCain's agendas are clear enough. They want to be the next president. And they want the votes of evangelical Protestants who look up to Warren, without losing the votes of other Americans less comfortable with his evangelical message. The two candidates will affirm religious and moral values, without getting too specific about the content of those values.

But what is Warren's agenda? The megachurch pastor casts himself as a statesman pointing both the evangelical movement and the broader society in more constructive directions. His press release expresses hope that the forum will advance two "life goals" of "helping the Church regain credibility and encouraging our society to return to civility."

Warren intends to focus on "the decision capacity and process of each man" and not so much on their positions on issues. He wants to avoid "the partisan 'gotcha' questions that typically produce heat instead of light." He prefers to talk about "pressing issues that are bridging divides in our nation, such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate and human rights."

Here's the subtext: Rick Warren is among some elite evangelical leaders who have decided that their movement has lost credibility through its identification with the Republican Party. They also worry that it has alienated large segments of the public through its strong opposition to abortion and homosexuality.

Warren's solution is to demonstrate that evangelicals are open to Democratic candidates like Barack Obama, that they are interested in ostensibly liberal causes such as fighting poverty and stopping climate change, and that they can speak in a gentle and inoffensive manner.

This strategy makes some sense. Evangelicals care above all about evangelizing the unchurched. And "seeker-sensitive" pastors like Warren realize that the largest number of unchurched Americans lean in a liberal and Democratic direction. They do not want to scare off potential converts by seeming too conservative and Republican.

Besides, there are good reasons in principle to avoid aligning the church with a single political party. The Republican Party is not a Christian organization, and its principles are not identical with the Gospel. Christians have often been embarrassed when political parties they supported turned out to be corrupt and cynical.

Rick Warren will not endorse either candidate. Nor has he abandoned his convictions about abortion and homosexuality. But he does Obama a great favor simply by presenting him on the stage of Saddleback Church alongside John McCain. Assiduously avoiding the issues where evangelicals differ most sharply with Obama also aids the Democrat's cause. (One wonders whether it will be possible, at an event in California, to pretend that the court-imposed redefinition of marriage is a matter of little concern to evangelicals.)

The big question is whether evangelicals in the pews will follow the elite's wish that they split their votes more evenly between Republicans and Democrats. The most recent poll by the Pew Forum for the People & the Press shows McCain leading Obama among white evangelicals by 68 percent to 24 percent--almost identical to the advantage enjoyed by George W. Bush at the same point in 2004.

Pew research indicates that 61 percent of weekly churchgoing evangelicals label themselves as "conservative." Although abortion and homosexuality are the issues on which their moral principles set them farthest apart from the general public, their conservative instincts run through many other issues. Evangelicals are more likely than others to be suspicious of "big government," skeptical about global warming, and supportive of U.S. military force.

These results raise the possibility of a growing gap between Warrenesque evangelical elites (seeking the political center) and average churchgoers (still quite conservative). We have seen this pattern before: in the declining mainline Protestant churches of the 20th century, where the leadership moved left in a vain attempt to prove its "relevance" to scoffing secularists, thereby leaving far behind its own moderate-to-conservative church membership. This pattern, if repeated, would not bode well for evangelical churches in the 21st century.

Alan Wisdom is Vice President for Research and Programs at the Institute on Religion & Democracy in Washington, DC.