Rev. Rick Warren is discovering that it's hard to be both America's Pastor and a Leader of Religious Conservatives.
Barack Obama's selection of Mr. Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration has infuriated many Obama supporters -- especially advocates of gay marriage -- in part because of comments Mr. Warren made in a recent interview with me for Beliefnet and The Wall Street Journal.
The most controversial exchange was this:
Mr. Warren: I'm opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I'm opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.
Beliefnet/WSJ:Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?
Mr. Warren: Oh, I do
So on the one hand you have Mr. Warren, in effect, equating gay marriage to marriages based on incest, pedophilia and polygamy. But if you look at the whole exchange on gay issues -- and, indeed, the entire interview -- you see Mr. Warren trying in other ways to chart a moderate path.
He started by acknowledging that divorce is a much bigger threat to the American family than gay marriage -- and chiding fellow conservatives for focusing on gay marriage more. He also said he supported civil partnership laws, a position which just got a top official fired from the National Association of Evangelicals. And later in the interview he said that Christianity has been harmed by religious conservatives focusing too much on politics.
At one point, Mr. Warren tried to describe an apolitical role for himself. I had asked him why, since he opposed torture, he hadn't tried to convince President Bush to change his posture. At first he said he "never got the chance" -- a somewhat implausible claim. Then he argued that he really intended to play more of a pastoral role, advising politicians on stress and family and their spiritual lives.
"They don't need me to be a political advisor. I'm not a pundit. I'm not a politician and that's why I don't take sides," Mr. Warren said. This is the Rev. Billy Graham model (at least later in Mr. Graham's life).
Mr. Warren does have legitimate claim to being a powerfully influential spiritual leader. His "The Purpose Driven Life" is the best-selling non-fiction book in history. His decision to reverse-tithe -- he keeps 10% and gives away 90% -- is inspiring to many, forcing all of us to ask: Am I doing enough?
He spends much of his time cradling the most destitute children in the world and trying to convince American Christians -- especially conservatives -- to do more. He speaks about his faith with a sense of joy that is infectious and he acknowledges his own spiritual doubts in a way that gives permission to followers to cultivate an intellectually-honest spiritual journey.
But the problem is he also takes political positions with gusto. He's vocally pro-life, supported the Proposition 8 ballot initiative in California, which outlawed gay marriage, and he's made all sorts of other political statements, some insensitive. Just because he doesn't formally endorse a candidate doesn't mean he's not political.
Because he's friendly, wears Hawaiian shirts (or used to) and talks about poverty, some mistakenly thought he was a "moderate evangelical." Politically, he's conservative. So if he gets involved in politics, most of the time he'll be on the side of the religious right -- and he'll inevitably be polarizing.
It's not an easy position. If Mr. Warren decides to avoid political issues, he can achieve an extraordinary status as a disciple of Christ who is beloved and respected by a wide variety of Americans. If the goal is to bring people to Christianity, he would then be in an unparalleled position. But it would require him biting his tongue on some of the great moral issues of the day. Can a real moral leader do that?
If he lets it all hang out, he will continue to alienate millions of Americans and come to be perceived as the sort of creature he himself has criticized, one whose political views blot out his faith message. Mr. Warren has tried to finesse this by saying he's mostly about Christ, and that when he does talk about politics he'll do so with civility.
Easier said than done.