Rick Warren on Politics

Rick Warren, the influential pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Orange County, Calif., invited eight presidential candidates to speak at his third annual "Global Summit on AIDS and the Church," but only Hillary Clinton came. (Five other candidates made appearances via pretaped video.) Clinton's speech at the church on Thursday—laced abundantly with Scripture and promises of billions of dollars of support for the international AIDS crisis—triggered accusations that she was crassly pandering to evangelicals. Warren, meanwhile, continues to stake out a position firmly in the middle, deflecting criticism from his more conservative peers that such invitations (Barack Obama was one of last year's speakers) betray a disregard for some Christian fundamental values. Pro-choice Democrats, they say, have no place inside evangelical churches. No matter: at Saddleback yesterday, Clinton was given a standing ovation. NEWSWEEK's Lisa Miller spoke with Warren about religion, politics and the race for president. Excerpts: 

NEWSWEEK: How is the evangelical vote shaping up? Who's got it?
Rick Warren: The biggest myth and the biggest misunderstanding about evangelicals is that they are a voting bloc. This article that came out on the cover of The New York Times Magazine saying the evangelical vote was splintering—the guy just didn't get it, they never have been a voting bloc. They tend to vote for people, not down party lines. Evangelicals—what they have in common is not their political views but their commitment to Christ. I don't really believe in Blue and Red States. What I really see is urban values and the-rest-of-the-country values. In the 2004 election, 94 percent of Manhattan went for Kerry. What do I know about Manhattan? You can't afford to live there if you're a family. There's a preponderance of single adults, and single adults tend to be more liberal than people with families. So I don't really believe in a Red and Blue division. America is really purple, a combination of both. People think, "Evangelicals, they're all just one thing"—well, they're not.

In the 2008 race, two guys could have been the evangelical candidate, Sam Brownback or Mike Huckabee, and they divided that vote in half. One drops out, and all of a sudden you have a "surge" for Huckabee.  I think people are reading the whole thing wrong. On top of that, you know what? America loves change. We love change. No party stays in power all the time.

But come on, evangelicals have traditionally voted as a bloc over the past 30 years.
Here's what the bloc is. Evangelicals tend to vote for people who claim to be born again. Every president back to Carter—Bush One didn't make a big deal about it, but he would say that. What do all those guys have in common? Nothing, except that all six of them were, quote, "born again."  It didn't matter whether they were Republican or Democrat. What's interesting to me is how much Democrats have run toward expressing their faith and how much Republicans have run away from expressing their faith this year.

Don't evangelicals form blocs around ideologies, like social conservatism?
Of course they do. In the last election, Catholics and evangelicals got together and voted for the same guy. That's a sizable bloc, but it doesn't mean they're coming to vote together in every election. The New York Times article made it sound like these guys are all fragmenting, but those groups have always been there. "Evangelical" includes Pentecostals to charismatics to Calvinists to the emerging-church movement to fundamentalists to evangelical Catholics. It's such a broad term. To make that a bloc isn't going to happen. My greatest regret is that for many people today, "evangelical" is a political term. I'm sad about that. It doesn't represent a political view, it represents a view of God.

How was it that Hillary Clinton was the only candidate who showed up in person to your conference?
I invited eight of them. Five of them sent a video and Hillary came. I asked her why when she came onstage. It was the first thing I asked.  I said, "Why did you show up?" She said, "In the first place, you asked me, and I told you I'd come. In the second place, I want to support what you guys are doing." I was humbled that a bunch of them made videos.

 She's being accused of pandering, of coming to Saddleback to court the evangelical vote. What do you think about that?
[Laughing.]If you look up politician in the dictionary, there are plenty of synonyms and one of them is pandering. A wise politician wants to cover all the bases, there's no doubt about that. We wanted to give people a chance to hear what she'd say she'd do about AIDS if she was president.

Were you disappointed that the others didn't come?
I was, I really was. To me, in some ways, it might have been short-sighted. I do know [the Republicans] had the YouTube event the night before, but the bottom line is, I counted 13 television cameras at the back of the sanctuary, there was wall-to-wall media. The fact is, it was free publicity—on the occasion of World AIDS Day.

After last year's conference, you got heat from some conservative Christians for inviting Barack Obama, a pro-choice Democrat, to speak at Saddleback. What did you learn from that experience?
What I learned is, no matter what you do, they're going to criticize you. There were only about a handful of critics, and three or four were bloggers—it's very easy to give yourself a title these days and be this or that. One of the things they were saying last time was, "Rick Warren allowed Barack Obama to use his pulpit and preach to his congregation." First, we didn't have a pulpit, second it wasn't a church service. It was a conference, bringing in people from every walk of life from around the world. I would never, ever have a politician address the congregation in a worship service.  I do not mind a politician coming to talk about AIDS if they're running for president. 

This conversation and others you've had recently make me wonder whether you're planning to vote for a Democrat.
I have no idea, and I certainly wouldn't tell you. I'm registered Independent. I have friends on both sides of the aisle. I am a pastor. What do pastors do? Pastors encourage leaders.

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