Purpose Driven Life

When George W. Bush became president in 2000, he brought with him a kind of "hey, guy" Christianity that had been quietly booming in megachurches throughout the land. It was neither the formal Episcopal worship of his youth nor the groovy pan-spirituality of lefty dabblers. Bush's faith was rooted in a Christian-conversion experience—and in the vernacular and ethos of the 12-step movement. It was nurtured in "small groups," Bible-based social clubs that allowed men (or moms, or singles, or seniors) to speak up about their experiences. The Christianity that the younger Bush brought to the White House was casual and personal; it often resembled—if you didn't look too closely—self-help as much as religion.

No book—indeed, no phenomenon—mirrors the Christianity of the middle Bush years better than "The Purpose-Driven Life" by Rick Warren, the pastor of California's Saddleback Church. Since 2002 it has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, making it the bestselling nonfiction hardcover book in history. At first glance it looks like "What Color Is Your Parachute?" for the 21st century. It's constructed like a self-help book, too: each chapter is a "unit," with quotations to contemplate and questions to ask yourself as you're falling asleep. The writing is easy-breezy, filled with slogans and exclamation points. But the message is uniform and Christ-centered: if you give your life to God, God will show you the meaning of your life.

The book's success shows the joy so many found in that simplicity. Initially, Warren's own politics reflected those of the conservative evangelicals who were credited with electing Bush in 2004. It is perhaps no accident that as Bush's popularity headed south, Warren turned to other things: Darfur, AIDS, literacy, childhood illness. During the election he took a visible but more nuanced role, hosting a debate on religion among the presidential candidates and opposing gay marriage in California. His own "purpose," it seems, was to turn his attention to the big, global problems with no easy answers.