Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor who drew fire last January when he gave the invocation at President Obama's inauguration, is to be lauded for his fortitude. In a videotaped statement released last week, Warren condemned proposed legislation in Uganda that would increase penalties for homosexual behavior. (Earlier versions included the death penalty for certain homosexual acts. Now homosexuality—and advocating for homosexuals—are merely criminal acts, subject to stiff fines and long prison terms.) "I completely oppose" the law, Warren said. He called it "unjust, extreme, and un-Christian."
Excellent. Righteous, even. But I can't help wondering: what took him so long?
Media stories began to connect Warren to the Uganda law back in October, when reporters discovered that one of its main boosters was a Ugandan pastor named Martin Ssempa, who had long been friendly with both Warren and his wife, Kay. (Ssempa is one of many African pastors whom the Warrens have befriended in their efforts to fight disease and poverty on that continent.) When questioned about his affiliation with Ssempa, Warren said in a statement: "In 2007 we completely severed contact with Mr. Ssempa when we learned that his views and actions were in serious conflict with our own."
But what did Warren—who believes that homosexual acts are unbiblical and yet has devoted himself to solving the problem of HIV/AIDS—think about the law? I repeatedly asked him through a spokesman and finally got this response: "It is not my personal calling as a pastor in America to comment or interfere in the political process of other nations." This circulated widely, on talk shows and blogs. Observers wondered, rightly, why genocide would engender such a tepid reaction. Moreover, it simply wasn't true. Warren has spoken out on politics, most recently on Meet the Press over Thanksgiving weekend, when he called abortion "a holocaust." Finally, after seeking counsel from friends and advisers—and after a long list of centrist pastors opposed the law—Warren did the right thing. But the six-week lag makes Warren appear indecisive—or, at the very least, too worried about his access. The Uganda law has no upside.
The generous interpretation here is that Warren is working within the mainstream evangelical tradition. Following the model of Billy Graham, Warren has long proclaimed himself "a pastor, not a politician." He has preferred to work for good behind the scenes. To alienate Ugandan leaders by speaking out against them could, from this perspective, reduce his ability to help those who need him most. In Uganda, says Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican priest from Zambia, "people are used to watching Rick Warren on TV and listening to him on the radio, so he's like a celebrity. Everyone wants to shake his hand." It is hard, no doubt, to give that up.
But Graham always added a caveat: certain moral wrongs—slavery, for example—were so obvious that a Christian needed to act "publicly and without a hint of equivocation," says Grant Wacker, a professor at Duke at work on a book about Graham. "If this issue were presented to a young Billy Graham today, I think he would have instantly condemned it," he says. He calls Warren's hesitancy "shocking."
In a harsher light, Warren's equivocations look like those of a politician trying to wriggle out of a tight spot without sacrificing his popularity. Since The Purpose Driven Life catapulted him to fame in 2002, Warren has been in an unenviable position: he is the conservative evangelical, who—through the force of his charisma and the clarity of his Gospel message—is palatable even to those on the left who, like Warren, are committed to doing good. The problem for Warren is this: his positions on homosexuality are controversial. Articulating them too clearly might alienate his allies who disagree with him, as I do. And so he wavers. When asked on Meet the Press to explain his support for the anti-gay-marriage proposition in California, he offered a lesson in hairsplitting. "I only mentioned it one time, and I mentioned it to my own congregation," he said. Any follower of the Jeremiah Wright morality tale knows that whatever you say one time to your congregation can—in an instant—be cable-news fodder. Warren arrived on the world stage through his authenticity. So to him I make this plea: Your Uganda statement was a good, brave start. Continue to say what's on your heart, and earn back the trust of your opponents.