A new-style evangelical pastor ascends the political stage
Pastor Rick Warren interviews Obama and McCain in a live broadcast Saturday.
Bestselling author. A Southern Baptist minister who breaks the conservative mold. Touted by some as the likely successor to Billy Graham.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
"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.