That Not-So-Mystifying Rick Warren

Kevin Drum is shocked that Rick Warren, he of Southern California evangelical culture, is against “wealth redistribution:”

Jake Tapper asked him what he thought about President Obama’s suggestion that God tells us to care for those less fortunate than ourselves:

Well certainly the Bible says we are to care about the poor….But there’s a fundamental question on the meaning of “fairness.” Does fairness mean everybody makes the same amount of money? Or does fairness mean everybody gets the opportunity to make the same amount of money? I do not believe in wealth redistribution, I believe in wealth creation.

Drum’s ellipses left out a few more of Warren’s words, before he jumped to the question of “fairness.” Between “the Bible says we are to care about the poor” and his “fundamental question” Warren said: “There’s over 2,000 versus in the Bible about the poor. And God says that those who care about the poor, God will care about them and God will bless them.”

This is a fairly standard view for an evangelical like Warren. He thinks God will bless those individuals, families, and churches who care about the poor and help the poor. But the government shouldn’t meddle. After all, Southern California was at one time a hotbed of Christian anti-communism. That it would produce modern-day evangelical opponents of economic regulation and a government-funded social safety net is no surprise.

The real shocker is not that Warren — an avowed theological and political conservative — would say this. The real issue here is that at one time President (then candidate) Obama praised Warren as a model of a Christian, a great leader working to eradicate poverty and HIV/AIDS. That was the Obama dreamily campaigning on a message of worshipping the same God in red and blue states; the same candidate Obama who believed that reaching out to evangelicals who’d never vote for him might bear electoral fruit; and the same President-elect Obama who asked Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.

At the time, Obama came under fire for the pick, given Warren’s hostility to LGBT and reproductive rights, as well as his dabbling in equivalencies like abortion=Holocaust and gay sex=incest. But, as I wrote at the time, there is more. Specifically, Warren argued that social gospel was “Marxism in Christian clothing,” and criticized mainline churches as more interested in good works than salvation. That view, I wrote, “lies at the heart of the religious right agenda to marginalize liberalism and harness its political power.”

Indeed liberal denunciation of conservative attacks on liberal interpretations of the Bible go astray when engage in theological battle alone. Two years ago, in writing about Glenn Beck’s rhetorical assault on social justice, I noted:

It’s not enough to defend the Bible from Glenn Beck; liberals will also need to defend the role of government in creating a social safety net and a regulatory structure that protects and enhances the economic lives of its citizens. While Beck has his conservative critics, they do agree on one thing: government is evil. Unless religious liberals defend the role of government, they provide an opening for Beck and his crew to redefine social justice to mean conservative Christianity is our government by proxy.

The same argument is applicable to Warren; although he did not attack social justice in the same crazed way Beck did, he still peddles the idea that liberals are Marxists and evangelicals are superior. He’s against “redistribution of wealth,” i.e., those “Marxist” ideas conservatives revile, but that are in reality merely Democratic policy proposals to regulate the economy.

Just today, on Twitter, Warren used 140 characters to make a completely unsubstantiated claim about the superiority of the church over government in helping the poor:

Let me borrow a phrase from Mark Silk’s terrific takedown of Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion excerpt yesterday: “a tissue of non- and half-truth, of historical misconception and ideological prejudice.”

Drum asks what Bible Warren is reading from. That’s a good question, but a limited one. The Bible, which Warren claims to interpret literally, did not envision 21st century America, its structural inequality, its religious battles, its discontents. The real questions we should be asking are how much longer Democrats will continue to pay homage to this sort of theology, and whether Obama will continue to hold up religious leaders like Warren as paragons of Christian faith in the public square when they are so hostile to his policy and legislative imperatives.