Is Rick Warren a Fascist?

An intentionally shocking YouTube segment has been making its way around the world; I’ve received it four times already:

The video broadcasts disconnected segments of a speech by Rick Warren delivered on April 15, 2005, at the Anaheim Stadium in southern California. The worry is that he has subtly equated his own mission with the great totalitarian ventures of the 20th century. While I have been a vocal critic of Warren before on matters exegetical, moral and theological, I am not convinced that his critics are fair to him here.

Granted, he uses some charged phrases—“global expansion” (of Christianity, natch); “total mobilization” (of Christian churches); “radical devotion” (of each congregant)—and connects his impressive work at growing the community at Saddleback, with the seeding of some 400,000 churches worldwide.

About ten minutes later, he mentions Hitler, Lenin, and Chairman Mao, noting that each man started a movement that “nearly changed the world.” He says the most about Hitler, admitting the similarities of the gathering of brown shirts in a Munich stadium in 1939 to the gathering in Anaheim. But this is the very moment where we must be careful, and listen to him more carefully.

Warren noted, with obvious moral distress, that the people from that long-ago stadium formed an enormous sign that said, “Hitler, we are yours.” At the conclusion of his own gathering, he invited his audience to hold up signs saying “Jesus, we are yours.”

That plea makes all the difference, clearly. Hitler, Lenin, and Mao nearly changed the world. Their failure to enact their plans has something to do, in Warren’s view, with the idolatries of all such political movements. If an audience dedicates itself to Jesus Christ—not to Rick Warren—then the forces of authentic moral and political transformation might yet be unleashed. So clearly, he is noting a similarity in order to insist upon a crucial difference. Christianity is totalizing in its commitments, but it is not totalitarian. We ought not be overzealous in making his message ghastly when it is not.

I do worry about a movement whose starting point is something as global and totalizing as the belief that the whole world must be changed. Shoot, the world does nothing but change. But certainly any morally serious person looking at the world today will be quick to discern that some radical changes are long overdue. The change Warren has in mind is, I suspect, more apocalyptically inclined than mine, but we would be able, I trust, to talk about those differences civilly enough.

My own thinking about the electronic brouhaha raised by this speech has been informed by Tom Junod’s truly shattering article I read recently in Esquire, “What the Hell Just Happened: A Look Back at the Last Eight Years.” His conclusion is damning:

Ask people what happened over the last eight years and the matter of assent—of belief—inevitably turns up somewhere in their answer: “We believed.” Ask them what they believed in, however, and the question becomes much more difficult. Did they believe in George W. Bush? No, not really—he just wasn’t that kind of man, despite his public efforts to make himself into that kind of man. And so what he relied on, instead, was an apparatus of belief, which required only a passive consensus. We believed, after being told that we had to believe. We believed, after being told that if we didn’t, we would die.

The lesson Junod draws from the last eight years is that it is too simple to blame it all on George W. Bush; all we do then is to ignore our own complicity in assent. It is to easy to blame the Shoah on Hitler; this too denies the existence of a vast army of “willing executioners.” And it is too easy to blame Rick Warren, or else to fear him or demonize him. It is the culture of blind assent that is the real culprit here, the almost casual erosion of our finest democratic habits.

I aspire to a critical left in this country that is religiously fluent enough to be able to talk about these things with a man of Warren’s stature, and fluent enough to quarrel with his interpretations of the Bible and the world. I dream of a left that knows enough about his worldview to know where he should be most welcome to speak (at an interfaith dialogue, perhaps) and where not (the Presidential Inauguration).

Rick Warren is not Hitler, and neither was George W. Bush and neither is Barack Obama. Evangelical Christianity is not fascism, and neither is American democracy. But any religious or political tradition can be turned, more easily than we care to recall, not by a maniac on a mission, but by a people that sees its primary duty as assent.

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