Let’s have a good word for Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in California. Rick Warren stands as a symbol for what is right about American Protestant Christianity. In a day when many evangelical personalities are in parachurch ministries (or TV evangelists), Warren pastors a church. In a day when many megachurches are independent, Warren’s Saddleback Church is denominational (Southern Baptist). In a day when many evangelical churches lack social outreach, Warren and Saddleback church are known for social outreach.
Warren has been an encouragement to millions, including many United Methodists, through his “purpose-driven” books. He has reached out to bridge political division by befriending both John McCain and Barak Obama and sponsoring a presidential forum in the recent presidential election. Time magazine called Warren “America’s pastor.” In many ways, he represents the American religious mainstream. He is comfortable with many different kinds of groups. He has sought to uphold historic Christianity while at the same time being willing to listen to different points of view. He (and his church) is traditional in many ways, yet thoroughly contemporary.
But in polarized American culture, to say nothing of the polarized church culture, it is difficult to stand in the middle. Warren is also maligned from both the right and the left extremes.
Those unaware of the issues and controversies that swirl around American fundamentalism might do well to be informed of the distaste directed against Warren by those who believe he is betraying evangelical faith. This issue arose in a United Methodist church I am acquainted with when the young adult Sunday School class announced they would be studying Warren’s book on the Purpose-Driven church. Suddenly the church was embroiled in a debate. Literature surfaced accusing Warren of compromising the fundamentals of the faith, of depending on pop psychology rather than Biblical principles, of associating with non-believers (liberals), and of advocating a social gospel. The criticism was so severe the class aborted the study. And if that happens in a United Methodist church, think what it is like in independent Bible churches! And this was before Warren took on AIDS in Africa, started talking about civil discourse, and invited Barak Obama to Saddleback Church, giving Obama legitimacy in the eyes of many evangelicals.
But if criticism from the theological right is ugly, the criticism from the political and theological left is even more intense. The secular radical left, which wants to re-fashion Barak Obama in its own image, is particularly incensed that Obama would invite Warren to pray at the inauguration. Warren is, in their eyes-horror of horrors–an evangelical.
In a recent study 53% of university faculty had an unfavorable view of “evangelicals” (even Muslims fared better with only a 22% unfavorable rating). To the secular left Warren believes in terrible things like creation, and marriage between a man and a woman. He supports abstinence even in Africa amidst the AIDS epidemic.
The religious left joins in the criticism. A clergywoman (thankfully not United Methodist) writing in our area newspaper under the title “Pastor Doesn’t Speak for America’s Faithful,” argues that Warren’s presence at the inauguration sends a wrong message. While people of faith may differ on many things, according to the writer, there are some principles and values that are non-negotiable. One non-negotiable principle is that homosexuals should be able to marry, a view opposed by Warren. According to the writer, there is agreement that an open racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic person should not represent people of faith for a new administration, why then include one who is bigoted against homosexuals?
In this view Warren should be disqualified to pray because he believes what Christians of all ages and in all places believe about marriage (which is also the official view of the United Methodist Church). If Warren wants to be a bigot in his congregation he can do so, according to the writer, but he should not be called upon to represent America’s “faithful.”
Evidently for this writer and her kind a more appropriate person to represent “America’s faithful” is Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop from New Hampshire. After all the criticism from the extreme religious left Obama has now invited Robinson to pray at the Lincoln Memorial in another inaugural event. Roberson, true to his “progressive” theology, has indicated he will not use a Bible and will not say a prayer that is specifically Christian.
And so, it seems, the religious and culture wars are being fought through who is invited to pray and what is said in the prayers.
In all of this Warren has been gracious, yet steadfast. He has not been critical of other pray-ers, but has sought to be true to who he is.
And so should we, especially those who claim to be evangelicals in mainline churches. We are the people who have the best chance of bringing healing to the nation. Evangelicals in mainline denominations relate both to the liberals who usually lead these denominations, but also to many evangelicals in the mainline denominations (especially the laity, and probably a majority of the members) and to the evangelical world outside the denomination.
Rick Warren is seeking to bridge the gap, and so should the rest of us.