A new-style evangelical pastor ascends the political stage

Pastor Rick Warren interviews Obama and McCain in a live broadcast Saturday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Big test: Pastor Rick Warren will interview Obama and McCain in a live broadcast Saturday.
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    A bigger tent: Religious conservatives have criticized pastor Rick Warren for broadening Evangelicals' social agenda and involving Democrats in his efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.
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Bestselling author. A Southern Baptist minister who breaks the conservative mold. Touted by some as the likely successor to Billy Graham.

On Saturday, pastor Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," will do what no one else has yet accomplished: bring the presumptive GOP and Democratic presidential nominees onto the same stage to discuss their views.

It's a sign of religion's importance in the 2008 presidential campaign. The event, back-to-back one-hour interviews at Mr. Warren's California megachurch, will be broadcast live on CNN and streamed on the Web. It also represents the emergence of a new style of evangelical leadership on the national stage, which is not tied to a single party and has broadened its social agenda beyond that of the religious right.

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"This is absolutely a changing of the guard, and it suggests that the new guard of the evangelical movement is able to generate the attention and focus of both parties," says D. Michael Lindsay, a sociologist at Rice University and author of "Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite."

Warren personally invited the two candidates – "friends of mine" – via their cellphones. His event at the Saddleback Valley Community Church in Orange County, Calif., – the nation's fourth-largest church – has among its aims "helping the Church regain credibility and encouraging our society to return to civility."

"This is a critical time for our nation, and the American people deserve to hear both candidates speak from the heart – without interruption – in a civil and thoughtful format absent the partisan 'gotcha' questions that typically produce heat instead of light," Warren said on announcing the event, called a Saddleback Civil Forum.

His questions will focus on how the candidates lead and make decisions and will cover five topics: leadership, stewardship, worldview, compassion issues, and their vision for America.

"This can be important as a model for a religious leader who is bipartisan in reaching out to find out about candidates," says C. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance, in Washington, which has criticized some uses of religion in the campaign. "He's putting himself on center stage at a critical moment, with a tremendous amount of responsibility riding on his shoulders."

There's little doubt the forum will capture a large audience. Many Evangelicals have been in a quandary over the election, not ready to embrace Senator McCain yet suspicious of Senator Obama. Millions of Americans are eager to get a more intimate look at the men vying to lead them. And Warren's stature among a broad spectrum of Christians and others who have read his books or signed onto his global mentoring program for churches (some 400,000) is itself a draw.

Widely seen as the most influential pastor in America, with a large overseas following as well, Warren has gone through the transition that he is now encouraging other Evangelicals to make – from strictly soul-saving to a broader agenda that includes attacking poverty and HIV/AIDS globally.

"He's representative of Evangelicals who now see that the gospel message is more than just about getting people into heaven; it's about how we use our spiritual resources to make this world a better place," says Kurt Fredrickson, director of the ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., where Warren got his doctorate.

After building his own church from one family in 1980 to 23,000 in weekly attendance, the affable preacher began teaching other clergy how to reach out and "grow" their congregations. The late management guru Peter Drucker praised his model and called him "a genius."

Warren wrote books that became bestsellers published in 50 languages. His "Purpose-Driven Life" is the bestselling nonfiction hardback book in history aside from the Bible. Praying to know what to do with this growing wealth and influence, the down-to-earth pastor, who regularly preaches in Hawaiian shirt and khakis, says God woke him up: "He told me to use my influence for those who have no influence."

With the encouragement of his wife, Kay, he took up the HIV/AIDS issue at a time when many Evangelicals still viewed it as punishment from God. And he's designed perhaps the most ambitious (some say naive) development plan ever conceived, the P.E.A.C.E. Plan, to mobilize a billion Christians to attack global evils. The energetic globe-trotter has begun implementing the plan in Rwanda, in alliance with that country's president.

"He's a visionary ... who sees the potential for the church to be a service organization and a transformative agent in the world," says Randall Balmer, a religion historian at Columbia University. "He thinks big, he dreams big, and he's pulled off some remarkable things."

Many leaders have spurred the broadening of the evangelical agenda, including Richard Cizik of the National Association of Evangelicals (on the environment), Jim Wallis of Sojourners (on poverty), and David Gushee of Mercer University (on torture). They have all sparked criticism from the religious right, which insists on hewing to a tight social agenda on abortion, homosexuality, and the courts.

Warren, too, is the frequent brunt of criticism. While theologically conservative and an opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, he has been criticized for reaching out to leaders such as Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama. But he likes to respond, "I'm not left wing and I'm not right wing. I'm for the whole bird. You have to have two wings to fly."

Young Evangelicals are also pushing the community more toward the center with their concerns for social justice and environmental issues.

The feeling has grown that it's time to pull back from too close a connection to one political party. This has created an opening for Democrats, which Obama has tried to take advantage of, meeting with prominent evangelical leaders and reaching out to youths.

According to a poll released this week by the Barna Group, among "self-reported Evangelicals" (40 percent of Americans) who say they are likely to vote, McCain holds a narrow 39 percent to 37 percent lead over Obama. Among those Barna defines as true Evangelicals (comprising the 8 percent of Americans who meet Barna's doctrinal criteria), McCain holds a 61 percent to 17 percent lead.

Other polls haven't found any Democratic inroads. "I think the polling done at this point is not fine-grained enough to see the effect of Obama's outreach," Dr. Lindsay says.

The nature of Evangelicals' political clout is changing, perhaps even diluting. Their vote may be up for grabs. But it's clear from this Saturday's forum that both parties see them as a key constituency.

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