RDPulpit: Rick Warren and the Limits of Empathy

U.S. News and World Report named him one of the top 25 leaders in America. Time magazine saw him as one of “Fifteen People Who Mattered Most in 2004.” Completing the trifecta, Newsweek put him on the list of “Fifteen People Who Make America Great.” By these and other measures, the Reverend Rick Warren is an impressive minister. He has created and supports foundations which do much good in the world, particularly among the poor of Africa. He is a person of generous spirit and great empathy. So it is particularly sad that his empathy does not extend to women who struggle with the issue of abortion.

The mega-popular megachurch pastor comes from a long line of Southern Baptist preachers. In 1980 he began the Saddleback Church with a tiny congregation who brought lawn chairs to basement meetings. His obvious talents and experimental programs led the church to grow exponentially. Today it has 22,000 members and operates from a large campus in Lake Forest, California, which includes a middle school and high school with an enrollment of 1500.

These accomplishments are impressive, no doubt, but his international celebrity and the moniker “America’s Pastor,” are largely the product of a best-selling self-help devotional, The Purpose Driven Life. Stunning skeptical publishers, the book has sold 25 million copies and is, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the best selling hardback in American history.

Revenue from the book has enabled Warren to stop drawing a salary and to refund the 25 years of salary he’d already drawn. Furthermore, the huge sums that continue to pour in allow him to engage in what he calls “reverse tithing”: He gives away 90 percent to foundations, churches and charities and lives on the remaining 10 percent. Unlike flashy televangelists, he has no interest in large homes, yachts, cars; in fact, he won’t even go on television because, he has said, he wants to support local ministers, not compete with them. He has provided “purpose-driven” curricula and other materials to over 25,000 churches, and hundreds of thousands of pastors have attended seminars or conferences with him and other Saddleback Church leaders. In short, Rick Warren is no political evangelist in the mold of a Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson.

The Expanding Evangelical Agenda

After the publication of his book and the flood of money, Warren had an awakening. With disarming candor he admitted that he had never thought much about poverty—living in a land of gated communities, he didn’t see much of it. In a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, Warren admitted that widows and orphans were not on his radar. He admitted to being confused as to how he had ignored the power of the Bible’s many verses on the poor. Having vowed to change all that, he ultimately contributed vast sums toward HIV prevention, medical education, and microfinancing for poor communities in many countries.

In 2006, Rick Warren signed a statement of concern about global warming, joining a number of the new breed of evangelicals, much to the chagrin of the old guard like James Dobson. The press began to talk about the expanded agenda of the “new evangelicals,” an agenda not limited to the old shibboleths of abortion and opposition to gay marriage.

The Five Non-Negotiable Issues

Despite all the above, on a number of issues critical to women’s lives, he remains as unyielding as the old guard figures whose wrath he incurred with his statements on global warming. On the eve of the 2004 presidential election, he sent a letter to his congregation telling them that there were five non-negotiable issues that should determine their vote—abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, homosexual marriage, and euthanasia. In fact, these five issues are barely mentioned in the Bible; Jesus never spoke about them, nor did the prophets. Interestingly, they are same five issues that are listed as non-negotiable issues by Roman Catholic ethicists.

Curiously, his election statement made no mention of widows and orphans, poverty, war, or AIDS. No mention of global warming, either. Because the Republican candidate opposed all five issues and the Democratic candidate was pro-choice and supported at least two more of them, it became clear that President Bush was the one to vote for.

Why, all of a sudden did abortion trump all other issues? Rick Warren is a man of compassion—why does he not have compassion for women who make the decision to end their pregnancy?

Limited Theology and the Failure of Empathy

Two factors seem to be involved in Rick Warren’s position. The first is a certain limitation in much of American evangelical theology. Historically the latter has focused primarily on the individual. There have been exceptions, evangelical lobbying for prohibition laws, to name one. But the focus on saving individual souls has had a tendency to override biblical concerns for social justice.

There is nothing wrong with this as far as it goes, but it doesn’t fully recognize the complexity of human evil. Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out that it is fine to urge people not to be selfish, but a more profound Christian faith will go further and try to create systems of justice which will save society and ourselves from our own selfishness. In regard to abortion, this means that a limited theology will try to urge women not to have abortions and pass laws criminalizing this decision. A more complex theology would suggest that society should go further and not only improve the situation of women facing unwanted pregnancy, but also prevent society from imposing its arbitrary will on her reproductive life.

As far as empathy is concerned, there seems to be scant evidence that Rick Warren and many other evangelical writers have tried to put themselves in the woman’s position, or that they can imagine what it would be like to have to make that decision. We always hear the phrase, “to fully understand a man, one has to walk a mile in his shoes.” Surely that good advice means we should also walk a mile in a woman’s shoes. In so much evangelical writing on abortion, the woman seems to fall into one of three categories:

  • The woman who has an abortion for convenience
  • The woman who is deceived by the abortion provider, and
  • The woman whose decision to abort indicates a kind of mental confusion or inability to reckon with the ethical dimensions of the decision.

One way or another, many evangelical leaders seem unable to conceptualize a woman as a responsible decision-maker, one who has made a thoughtful consideration of her situation and knows exactly what she is doing; a woman in many cases who doesn’t feel the need to consult anyone. In other words, a moral agent.

Without such empathy, Rick Warren’s statements about abortion have a helicopter feel to them—they hover over the complexities of a woman’s life, but never land. And without appreciating those complexities, neither understanding nor compassion is possible. However broad, however generous your agenda, you cannot leave women out of the divine demand for justice.

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