Purpose Driven Politics: Rick Warren’s Civil Service

On August 16, an Olympic Games-fatigued American public will turn its attention toward Lake Forest, California, where Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church, and author of the mega-bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, will host both presumptive presidential nominees, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ). While the Saddleback Civil Forum on Leadership and Compassion will not be a debate—interviews will be done separately and in succession—and the two men are scheduled to meet only briefly, this will be the first time Sens. Obama and McCain have shared a stage during the campaign.

“This is a critical time for our nation and the American people deserve to hear both candidates speak from the heart—without interruption—in a civil and thoughtful format absent the partisan ‘gotcha’ questions that typically produce heat instead of light,” Warren said in a press release.

This is not the first time Warren has brought Obama to Saddleback. In December 2006, Obama and the ultra-conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) appeared at Warren’s annual AIDS conference.

“Right wing, left wing. I’m for the whole bird,” Warren said at the time.

“You have to have two wings to fly. When I thought of all the men I knew in Congress and the Senate, and believe me there were more who wanted to come [to the conference], I thought of Sen. Obama and Sen. Brownback for three specific reasons,” Warren said, citing “their integrity, their civility even when they disagree and their openness to learning and listening.”

A month earlier, Warren hired Larry Ross of the Dallas, Texas-based A. Ross Communications to run his public relations operations. The PR firm was founded in 1994 to: “restore faith in media”; provide “value-added P.R. that defines values”’ and, give Christian messages relevance and meaning in mainstream media. Ross’ client list has included Mel Gibson (he helped publicize The Passion of the Christ), Pentecostal preacher T.D. Jakes, and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Forget all you know about the old conservative Christian evangelical elite. Forget about the dust-up over Pastor John Hagee and his apocalyptic visions, his anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, and anti-gay preaching; put the Reverend Pat Robertson and odd ramblings on his still highly-popular “700 Club” out of your mind; try not to think about the Reverend Rod Parsley and his Christocratic declarations; and ignore the hard-charging sons of the great pastors of yesteryear—the Rev. Jonathan Falwell (the late Jerry Falwell’s boy) and Franklin Graham (the son of the legendary Billy Graham).

Focus instead on one of the new breed; a mega-church pastor with undetermined—but growing—political influence; a media savvy star with extraordinary financial resources, a program, passion and compassion. That is Rick Warren. And, if you haven’t heard much about him yet, you most certainly will now that he has signed up both Obama and McCain.

Rick Warren is a man with a mission, a message and media savvy.

“One of my goals is to take evangelicals back a century, to the 19th century,” Warren said in a January 2006 interview with Knight Ridder Newspapers. “That was a time of muscular Christianity that cared about every aspect of life.”

He has stayed away from the controversies that plagued Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, Ted Haggard, Pat Robertson, and Pastor John Hagee. And while he holds conservative views—he opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and supports the death penalty—Warren maintains that he is not part of the Religious Right.

His book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” has sold well over 20 million copies and is the highest-selling nonfiction book in the nation’s publishing history. Time magazine named him one of “15 World Leaders Who Mattered Most in 2004,” and in 2005 the magazine had him on its list of “100 Most Influential People in the World.”

Well-traveled, it sometimes seems that Warren is appearing everywhere at about the same time; from Africa to Washington, DC, from Europe to New York City, from YouTube to iTunes. Over the years, he has spoken at the United Nations, the World Economic Forum in Davos, the African Union, the Council on Foreign Relations, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, TIME’s Global Health Summit, and numerous congresses around the world.

In late-May, according to a press release posted on Christian Newswire, “Over 1,700 leading pastors, business and Christian institutional leaders from 39 countries and all 50 states gathered” at Lake Forest’s Saddleback Church for a three day Purpose Driven Network Summit organized, “to create The PEACE Coalition, a new international alliance of churches, businesses, ministries, universities, and other institutions.”

P.E.A.C.E. is an acronym for: Promote reconciliation; Equip servant leaders; Assist the poor; Care for the sick; and Educate the next generation. “For the past four years, thousands of members of Saddleback Church have been testing prototypes of the P.E.A.C.E. Plan around the world,” the release continued. “During this phase, called P.E.A.C.E 1.0, more than 7,700 members volunteered on over a thousand P.E.A.C.E. teams to serve in 68 countries. A dozen other Purpose Driven Network churches were invited to beta-test the plan with Saddleback. After studying the data reported back by these teams, Warren felt confident that the second phase, PEACE 2.0, was ready to be released with the public launch of the PEACE Coalition.”

According to Talk2Action’s Richard Bartholomew, “Warren’s ’PEACE’ plan—his vision for the economic and spiritual development of Africa … has been ‘beta-tested’ in Rwanda … and Uganda (where Warren recently expressed his strong support for laws against homosexuality). Now Warren has apparently brought much of the US evangelical mainstream on board at a ‘PEACE Coalition Summit.’ Various pastors spoke enthusiastically about their wish to ’take’ countries like Mozambique and Nigeria.”

In August, Warren will lead the questioning of the two candidates. “I just got to thinking, you know what? These guys have never been together on the same stage, it would be a neat way to cap the primary season before they both go to the conventions and things go dark for a couple of weeks,” Warren told the New York Times. “I’ve known both the guys for a long time, they’re both friends of mine, and I knew them before they ran for office, so I just called them up.”

According to press reports, the questions will center on AIDS, poverty, human rights and the environment. Not everyone was thrilled by the choice of topics. In his daily FRC Action Update (July 21), the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins said these are subjects that “the Left would have us believe … is the faith community’s new agenda,” but what is needed, said Perkins is “a candid discussion of traditional values issues such as life, marriage, and religious freedom …” Perkins also suggested that the candidates be asked about their “position on man-woman marriage”; where they “stand on partial-birth abortion and the killing of nearly-born babies“; if they would sign the “Freedom of Choice Act into law”; and whether “the federal faith-based initiative [can] survive without hiring protections for religious charities?”

A friend of President Bush, Warren has had several visits to the White House, but he also met for several hours at Saddleback with Sen. John F. Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, to discuss such issues as poverty and the environment. “I’m worried that evangelicals be identified too much with one party or the other. When that happens, you lose your prophetic role of speaking truth to power,” Warren said. “And you have to defend stupid things that leaders do.”

In that light, Warren’s upcoming interview appears to be a win-win for both campaigns and for Warren.

Over the course of the early part of the campaign, there have been questions raised about whether the evangelical vote is up for grabs; whether new concerns about AIDS in Africa, poverty and the environment could trump—or at least neutralize—such issues as abortion, stem cell research and gay rights, and bring some evangelical voters to the Obama column.

The Obama campaign has been actively meeting with and seeking to convince evangelical voters that he is a man of faith. In recent weeks, Obama announced that he would enhance and expand President Bush’s faith-based initiative. The New York Times reported that “Between now and November, the Obama forces are planning as many as 1,000 house parties and dozens of Christian rock concerts, gatherings of religious leaders, campus visits and telephone conference calls to bring together voters of all ages motivated by their faith to engage in politics.”

McCain, on the other hand, has had a rocky relationship with conservative evangelical Christians dating back to at least the campaign of 2000 when called the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson “agents of intolerance.” Earlier this year, the dust-up over the endorsement of Pastor John Hagee—and McCain's rejection of that endorsement after it was revealed that Hagee claimed that God sent Hitler in order to push the Jews to go Israel—didn’t help his standing in that community.

However, none of that stopped a bunch of Religious Right leaders—including Phyllis Schlafly, “Left Behind” co-author Tim LaHaye, and Don Hodel, former president of Focus on the Family—from endorsing McCain earlier this month (In a radio broadcast that aired just a couple of weeks later, Focus on the Family founder James Dobson dramatically reversed course and made motions toward endorsing McCain as well).

For Warren, the upcoming forum elevates his star power. He can be seen as one of the new breed, whose concerns go beyond traditional Religious Right core issues. And Warren can be seen as a uniter, not a divider. He also announced that in conjunction with the McCain-Obama event, he will convene an interfaith meeting at his Saddleback Church for approximately 30 Muslim, Jewish, and Christian leaders to discuss cooperation in projects for “the common good of all Americans.”

Faith in Public Life, the multi-denominational religious group that held the Compassion Forum at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., in April, featuring Sen. Obama and Sen. Clinton, will be co-sponsoring the event. Warren allowed that he would get input from the Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders associated with the group: “Since I’m their friend, I’m not going to give them any gotcha questions,” Warren said. A typical question might be, “What’s the most difficult decision you’ve had to make, and how did you make it?”