Rick Warren found himself in a hotbed of controversy when he accepted President Obama's invitation to pray at the inauguration in January.
Several gay and liberal activists decried the choice because Warren opposes same-sex marriage, even though the California megachurch pastor's recent activism has been focused more on poverty reduction and HIV/AIDS around the world. In fact, Warren spent some time on the phone this week with Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, to talk about the 15th anniversary of the country's genocide.
Since the inauguration, Warren has declined to do interviews with the media, but he spoke with Christianity Today on Tuesday about the backlash from that invitation, his newly launched magazine, and how the economy is affecting his church's global outreach.
Easter is coming up this Sunday. What do you plan to preach on?
This is a very significant Easter for us because I started Saddleback 30 years ago. I held the first Easter service in 1980, when 205 people showed up at a high school. Now, 30 years later, I'll be doing 14 services starting on Thursday, and we'll have somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 people. We're getting ready to start a series called, "Making sense of life's biggest mysteries."
You told Larry King last night, "During the whole Proposition 8 thing, I never once went to a meeting, never once issued a statement, never never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop. 8 was going." But just before the election, you filmed a video for your congregation and said, "If you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8."
What I was trying to say is, those who obviously opposed my viewpoint on the biblical definition or the historical definition of marriage were trying to turn me into an anti-gay activist. The truth is, Proposition 8 was a two-year campaign in the state, and during those two years, I never said a word about it until the eight days before the election, and then I did make a video for my own people when they asked, "How should we vote on this?" It was a pastor talking to his own people. I've never said anything about it since. I don't know how you take one video newsletter to your own church and turn that into, all of a sudden I'm the poster boy for anti-gay marriage.
Obama called me the first week in December and asked me to do the invocation [prayer]. I made a commitment to say nothing to the press about it until after the inauguration. For nearly 40 days or 50 days I called it 40 days of persecution (laughs) I took all kinds of flak and never responded back.
The only response that I made was, I wrote an e-mail to all of the gay leaders that I know. I have many friends who are gay leaders whom we've worked with on AIDS campaign on health, poverty, and disease. The guys that I knew, I apologized to them.
In a Beliefnet interview, which was an hour long, Steve Waldman asked me about gay marriage. I said I believe marriage, that term, should be reserved for a man and a woman. I'm not saying same-sex couples don't love each other. I gave some examples of what I think shouldn't be considered to be marriage, like an older guy with a younger woman. Then [Waldman] said, "Are you saying that those are the same thing?" I said, "Oh sure." It made it sound like I was equating homosexuality with pedophilia and incest. I don't believe it, never have, and never would.
I don't believe that, but because I made a commitment to not say anything about it, people just ran with it. They were looking for a new poster boy. There's a lot of hatred out there. People don't realize that you don't have to agree with somebody to love them. I am commanded to love everybody. I can disagree with people, but I'm not free to not love them.
Have you spoken to the President since the inauguration?
Are you backing away from involvement in politics?
I never have been involved in politics. The only reason why we did the Civil Forum last summer was because I happened to know both of the guys and I knew they would probably trust me to ask legitimate questions and not ask gotcha questions. I've never endorsed a candidate and I never will. Someone asked me, "[Are you] a consultant to the President?" And I said, "Absolutely not." My role is to pray for the President, my role is to pastor any leader who wants my help.
I don't go fishing for those roles, but when guys call me and want to talk about personal issues, I will do that. I'm not a policymaker, I'm not a pundit. In fact, I don't have any interest in it. It's not on my agenda.
Speaking of the Saddleback Civil Forum, Obama responded to your question about when human life begins by saying that it's above the President's pay grade. But in his first 100 days, he overturned the Mexico City Policy, reversed former President Bush's policy on stem-cell research, and appointed a pro-choice politician to lead Health and Human Services. What do you make of that?
Barack Obama knows we disagree on a number of issues. I talked to him about it before he decided to run for President, and I told him that I think his views on abortion are wrong. You can like somebody without agreeing with all of their policies. Most people know that I was a friend of President Bush. I didn't agree with everything President Bush did.
President Obama has not named anyone to run PEPFAR yet. Will Saddleback's HIV initiative be willing to work with a leader who puts greater emphasis on condoms and not fidelity and abstinence?
We'll work [with] anybody on areas we have to find agreement with. This is a thing that everybody has to learn. For instance, there are people who don't want to work with Catholics because they don't believe in any birth control. Well fine. I actually admire them for their conviction. It's not my conviction. There are 600,000 Buddhists, 800,000 Hindus, and a billion Muslims, and over 2 billion Christians. If you say that people of faith cannot do humanitarian care because of their beliefs, you just ruled out most of the world. The actual number of atheists is quite small outside of Europe and Manhattan.
That's why I can work with gays, who I don't happen to agree with, for instance, on what they view should be defined as marriage. In fact, when we began to develop our ministry with AIDS, we were far more willing to work with other people than people were willing to work with evangelical Christians. It was reverse discrimination.
When you received backlash for praying at the inauguration, it seemed like some evangelicals who had been critical of you in the past were quick to defend you. Did you see it that way?
I don't know. To me, it seemed rather quiet. There was a constant barrage of people saying all kinds of things because I had misstated myself. There's a real fear of many Christian leaders to deal with tough issues. I think there's a fear of, "I don't want to get caught up into that." They saw what was done to me. Even in the past week, we saw that happen to T. D. Jakes and Tony Dungy, who have been brought into an issue. You can discuss any issue except sexuality. That's off the table. It's the one area that is taboo.
Have you paid attention to the new faith-based initiatives released by President Obama and Joshua DuBois focusing on the four issues of responsible fatherhood, reducing unintended pregnancies, increasing interfaith dialogue, and reducing poverty?
Those are great goals. My fear is that if all of a sudden you have to compromise your convictions to be part of the faith base, that will kill it. People will simply ignore it. Saddleback has never accepted government money for any PEACE Plan project because we don't want the strings attached to it. While the faith-based initiatives have great promise, if it becomes an issue where you can't just hire Christians in a Christian school, that will effectively kill them.
I know a lot has been happening recently at your church. Just a few weeks ago, you baptized 800 in one day.
I was in the water for over five hours. I had webbed feet. It had to be a record. You know, it says in Acts that at the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were baptized and added to the church that day. We had 2,400 added to the church that day. The world belongs to Saddleback. When we started Saddleback, it was a white suburban church. We speak 65 different languages. It's the United Nations. I baptized an Egyptian General; I baptized probably 50 or 60 nationalities.
After you posted an invitation to the baptism and membership, some bloggers criticized the promotion. In the promotion, you said new members could have their photo with Pastor Rick and get a free one-year subscription to The Purpose Driven Connection. Why did you advertise the event that way?
In the first place, I think every person should take a picture with the pastor who baptizes them. That's a memento, that's a spiritual hallmark. That's not anything new. It wasn't like, oh, this is something we've never done that's going to attract people. In the past 10 years, Saddleback has baptized over 20,000 new believers. We are, without a doubt, the most evangelistic church in America. There are churches that are bigger than Saddleback, but there are no churches that reach more people for Christ than Saddleback. There are no churches that send as many people into the missions field. There's not a church that has sent 8,000 people into the missions field.
The magazine is simply the index of the resources for people to start a small group. And they thought that drew people? (laughs) What about the 20,000 people who have joined in the past 10 years? It certainly wasn't a promotional event.
You recently launched a magazine during the economic recession. Do you have doubts about Readers Digest Association's financial stability?
No magazine is doing really great right now. These are tough times for print magazine right now. The reason we chose Reader's Digest is that they chose us. Tim Collins, who was a major owner and investor in Reader's Digest, had read The Purpose-Driven Life and became a friend of mine, and he called me up and said, "I basically bought this company and I want to give it to you for a platform."
Do you know how many people you're reaching yet?
I don't know yet. We're putting out five issues this year, it's a quarterly magazine. Our goal is to start 10,000 of these Purpose-Driven Connection groups.
How has your church been impacted by the recession?
Well, we have been impacted, but not in giving. Giving is up compared with last year. Recessions come and go I've been at Saddleback 30 years and we've been through three or four different downturns.
I actually canceled all of my out-of-country speaking and canceled almost everything because I felt like this is the time I need to be home. Revivals are often birthed out of recessions, out of tough times. Three things go up in recessions: church attendance, bar attendance, and movie attendance. Why those three things? They represent the three things people are looking for: meaning, connection, and relief. Through our Purpose-Driven Connection groups, we're trying to provide that meaning, connection, and relief to things like, "How should I be managing my money in these tough times?"
You haven't spoken to the media in several months. Why did you decide to start doing interviews again?
It's Easter week. Easter week I typically make myself available. I didn't ask to pray at the inauguration it wasn't my idea in the first place and as soon as it was over, I felt like I needed to put my head down and focus on the enormous harvest. People see me out there I speak to Muslim groups and Jewish groups, I'm actually having a Passover Seder tomorrow night. People never need to doubt why I do what I do, even when associating with people gets me in all kinds of hot water. Jesus got into hot water for the people he associated with. Fundamentalist groups say Warren hangs out with Jews and Muslims and gays and on and on. The point is, I'm not allowed to not love anybody.
But as long as you're working with groups of other faiths, where do you draw the line?
You never compromise your convictions. I'm not a champion of interfaith dialogue. I think most interfaith dialogue is a waste of time, because you just sit in a room and talk. You're probably not going to convince a Muslim to change his views, and he's probably not going to convince you to change your views about Christ. I am interested in interfaith projects. Can we work together on issues that apply to humanity like caring for the sick, assisting the poor, educating the next generation, ending corruption, and promoting reconciliation? I don't have to agree with you and you don't have to agree with me on everything, but I'm not insisting that you compromise your beliefs.
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