January 20, 2019

The Great Awakening

The Rev. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church will hold back-to-back public conversations this Saturday, Aug. 16, with the two presumptive presidentialcandidates, Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain. The conversations, on the topic of “Compassion and Leadership,” will be broadcast at 8 p.m. on CNN.

This is not a debate; it’s two civil dialogues between a Republican and a Democratic candidate for president, which will be moderated by the evangelical leader of a 23,000-member megachurch in Orange County.

But it’s also something else, something historic a victory for the good guys in the cultural wars.

That’s right: After years of watching the debate over faith and values in America play out with all the finesse of MTV’s “Celebrity Deathmatch,” we will now get to see what happens when a thoughtful adult takes over from the goofballs, windbags, con artists and media whores who have led most of the battles until now.

“Rick Warren is this new generation,” Shawn Landres, CEO and Director of Research of Jewish Jumpstart, told me. “This is not the Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson generation. This is the generation of evangelical leaders who want to engage with American political culture, who want to reach out.”

“James Dobson and Robertson and Falwell preached to their choirs,” Landres continued, “and they could move mountains when they got their choirs excited. But Warren is playing for the middle. He’s trying to recapture the center.”

(Landres, by the way, didn’t use words like windbag and con artist. Those are mine.)

Remember the center? As the Christian right alloyed itself to the Republican Party over the past two decades, the center people of faith who didn’t believe that God only attended one party’s convention got squeezed. And every debate that touched on values and morality was turned into a politically charged, zero-sum wrestling match, fueled by columnists, talk radio, TV talking heads and bloggers.

Abortion, later-term abortion, stem cell research, “The Passion of the Christ,” gay marriage the loudest voices on all these issues have been the least compromising, the ones least interested in reaching out.

But Warren is different. In one sense, he recalls the Rev. Billy Graham, who self-consciously sought to serve as “America’s Pastor.” But Graham was a product of simpler times, when being inclusive meant reaching out to white men of several Christian denominations.

Warren is bringing the discussion of faith and values into a marketplace that has grown much more heterogeneous, even as our ability to discuss these complex and delicate issues has remained stunted. Can we talk about treating the plague of HIV/AIDS in Africa without getting into a screaming match over safe sex? Can we talk about indecency as something other than seeing Janet Jackson’s nipple on television? Can we talk about Israel in terms of complex political and moral issues and not as a simplistic character in some end times fairy tale?

I think Warren can. I saw him two years ago at Sinai Temple, where he spoke to a crowd of some 1,700 people at Friday Night Live. We met in a small preshow reception. Ron Wolfson of American Jewish University, Warren’s longtime friend, introduced us. I stuck out my hand, and Warren barged past it and gave me a great big bear hug.

“Rob!” he said. “Brother!”

The warmth was genuine, and boy did it throw me off my game.

Rick Warren’s speech at Sinai Temple

I’ll be surprised if his conversations on Saturday don’t go beyond the obvious professions of faith that have become standard issue for political candidates these days. And I’ll be very disappointed if Warren doesn’t take the opportunity to throw our leading candidates off their game.

“The purpose of influence,” he said at Sinai Temple, “is to speak up for those who have none.”

If McCain says faith calls upon him to care for the poorest and weakest among us, Warren can ask him how he squares that with his shifting stance on illegal immigrants.

If Obama says, as he did in Time magazine this week, how his own Christian journey has brought him to see how “all Americans can live together in a diverse society,” Warren can ask him how he squares that with his loyalty to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose sermons were often hateful and divisive.

In challenging the candidates, Warren has a chance to reframe what has passed for a national discussion about faith.

He began that process by inviting Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton to speak at his church, despite their well-known pro-choice stands. Warren took, and continues to take, heated criticism from within his own movement for offering his pulpit to more liberal speakers. But he hasn’t backed down.

“The first thing we have to learn [from Warren],” Landres said, “is the courage to engage with people with whom we disagree for the sake of having a healthy communal discussion.”

He has also broadened the definition of overused words like “morality” and “faith.”

Inspired by his wife Kay’s work with AIDS victims in Africa, Warren has expanded his church’s mission to include development abroad and poverty relief at home. You don’t hear Warren going on about gay marriage in the press. You do hear him talk about the moral imperative to fight global warming.

That’s not to say as a pastor he has come around on those hot-button cultural issues. I’m sure he still opposes safe sex, stem cell research and showing Janet Jackson’s nipple on television. But for Warren, and an increasing number of influential evangelical voters, these are not the issues.

“I want what’s good for everybody, not just what’s good for me,” he told Time this week.

Such an outlook brings us closer to the faith of the Founding Fathers, who believed that intertwining religion and politics could only strangle both.

I, for one, am looking forward to going back.