The Pastoral is Political


Purpose driven pastor Rick Warren repeatedly disassociates himself from the religious right: "never even been to one of their meetings - not one," he assured a group of journalists convened by the Pew Forum last month.  Indeed, Warren disassociates himself from politics: in addition to harboring "no political aspirations," he has "no aspirations to even influence public policy."  He's not interested in legislation, he stresses, referencing the health care omnibus bill: he's "interested in results."
Obviously this is mere rhetoric: anyone whose signature issues including "caring for the sick" can hardly be indifferent to a legislative overhaul of health care, passage or defeat of which will have consequences (or "results") for millions of people.  Warren is, after all, actively engaged in work that can only succeed by influencing public policy:

He describes his commitment to helping AIDS victims, his expertise on strategies for stopping or halting the spread of AIDS, and notes his discourse with world leaders: "we do an annual global summit on AIDs to which pretty much every world leader who has been involved in that fight has been, including last year or two years ago during the campaign every one of the candidates - presidential candidates - was represented there, either video or live."  He reports that his "bible-based recovery program ... built on the actual words of Jesus ... is the official recovery program in 17 state prison systems;" (never mind that state sponsored sectarian religious programs are enabled by controversial laws, policies, and judicial interpretations of prohibitions on establishing religion.)  He cites his "newest signature issue ... religious freedom and persecution," mentions that he is "one of few people who has actually had the Chinese cabinet in my backyard for a barbecue," and reports that he will be soon hosting a forum on sex trafficking and slavery featuring "my friend Nick Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn."  
I hope it's clear that I'm not questioning Warren's engagement in any of this work; I'm questioning the pretense that it does not involve politics or, at the very least, policy.  Warren stresses that "everybody has a different role," and his role is apolitical: "My job at a pastoral level is to care, to love and to care on a personal level."  But whether or not he's still actively engaged in individual pastoral counseling (with ordinary people as well as the occasional world leader,) Warren has an audience of millions, (his self-help manifesto, The Purpose Driven Life has reportedly sold some 30 million copies,) and no mere human being can possibly "love and care on a personal level" for millions of people he has never met.  In any case, even if he prays regularly for everyone's individual salvation, Warren's ambitions (and programs) are global and institutional: "We will be the first church in 2000 years of Christianity to literally go to every nation," he confidently predicts.  Hobnobbing at Davos, he aims to build a church that will partner with government and business in solving "the five biggest problems on the planet: poverty, disease, illiteracy, corruption and conflict."  
I wish him luck.  (Who wouldn't?) But given this agenda, why bother to feign disinterest in policy?  Because by professing no allegiance to the left or right, Warren universalizes his appeal and the political influence he claims to eschew: he can speak at the inaugurations of Republican or Democratic presidents, host presidential candidate forums, and impress opinion leaders right, left, and center.  He can avoid being stigmatized as another Falwell or Robertson and relegated to the niche market of those "religious right" leaders whose "meetings" he never attends.  
Warren may have learned from experience the perils of overtly taking sides politically.  On the eve of the 2004 presidential election, he sent a now notorious letter to his followers urging them to vote for candidates with correct biblical positions on five "non-negotiable issues" on which "God's word" is clear: "abortion and protecting the live of unborn children;" "homosexual marriage;" "the use of unborn babies for stem cell harvesting," "human cloning;" and "euthanasia -- the "killing of the elderly and the invalids."  He stressed that the Supreme Court  -- shaped by the president -- "decides on" these issues and others, including, "revoking the tax exemption of churches, removing 'under God' from the flag pledge, and 'in God we trust' from our money."  Letters like this will put you in a pew with the religious right regardless of how many meetings you skip.
So these days, Warren presents himself as a politically independent, compassionate Christian: "People have a hard time nailing me," he asserts, because he's "not religious right" and not a "classic liberal:" he "agree(s) with the liberals on many of their views on justice, equality, poverty reduction and things like that." But he "just happens to disagree that the government is the answer."  
In other words, Warren is actually quite easy to nail down: he is a small government, (social issue) conservative.  Declaring his belief in "justice, equality, and poverty reduction" does not align him with liberals, as he suggests.  It aligns him with virtually everyone; you'd be hard pressed to find anyone, right or left, who professes support for injustice, inequality, poverty, and other "things like that."  What distinguishes liberal from conservative approaches to social justice is precisely what Warren disputes - the belief that government may indeed be "the answer."

Again, I don't begrudge Warren his conservative political views. (Big of me, you might respond.)  And so long as doesn't delve into electoral politics from the pulpit (while hanging on to his tax exemptions,) I don't begrudge him his efforts to influence public policy.  I do wish he'd acknowledge them.

(Photo: Stan Honda/Getty Images)