A new-style evangelical pastor ascends the political stage
Pastor Rick Warren interviews Obama and McCain in a live broadcast Saturday.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.