Mega-church pastor Rick Warren has flipped from being a cheerleader for President Bush in the fall of 2004 to claiming neutrality in the 2008 presidential election. His twist is accompanied by a widespread claim that he now has a broader moral agenda. But discerning Christians ought to ask what purpose drove his shift and did he really pivot toward a more comprehensive set of moral issues?
An EthicsDaily.com editorial asked in March 2005: “Does Rick Warren Read a Small Bible?”
That question arose from Warren’s endorsement of Bush six days before the 2004 presidential election, when Warren wrote pastors across the country that the Bible was on Bush’s side and that Sen. John Kerry’s views were opposite of Bush’s views.
“For those of who accept the Bible as God’s Word … there are five issues that are non-negotiable,” wrote Warren. “To me, they’re not even debatable, because God’s Word is clear on these issues.”
Those issues were abortion, stem-cell harvesting, homosexual marriage, human cloning and euthanasia, issues about which he claimed the Bible was clear.
“There can be multiple opinions among Bible-believing Christians when it comes to debatable issues such as the economy, social programs, Social Security and the war in Iraq,” he asserted.
The “non-negotiable” language and the five issues were identical to those of a right-wing Catholic statement intended to help elect Bush.
Warren neither credited his original source nor cited any biblical evidence to back up his claim. He simply spoke ex cathedra about the Bible being on his side, on Bush’s side.
When the re-elected Bush nominated White House Counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in the fall of 2005, Warren said, “I think it was for this very moment that we had the last election.”
“It’s the reason I jumped in and mobilized, you know, our network, because it’s all about the court,” Warren said. “And I think for all of the reasons already mentioned Harriet’s a great choice. I mean she’s a great person, she’s a great woman, she’s a great Christian, she’s a great thinker, and I just throw my support behind her.”
Miers later withdrew when conservatives failed to support her confirmation.
Fast-forward through Bush’s sluggish response to Hurricane Katrina, disastrous execution of the war in Iraq and failed leadership on the economy.
Observe the moral collapse of the Republican Party with scandal after scandal ”Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.), preacher Ted Haggard, Republican activist Ralph Reed, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) and Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho).
See Bush’s plummeting popularity. Look at the Democratic Party’s recapturing of the House of Representatives and Senate in 2006.
Now listen to Warren in early 2008. He told journalists that he regretted his e-mail to help re-elect the president. He cited as reasons for his about face his wife, who was treated for breast cancer in 2003, and the success of Purpose Driven Life, which was published in 2002, both experiences before his Bush endorsement.
“I never endorse,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on July 22, 2008.
Three days later, he told CNN’s Campbell Brown, “I don’t think it’s right for pastors to endorse” and “I would never endorse a candidate. I would never campaign for a candidate.”
Faithful Democrats and Democratic operatives disclose little interest in why Warren has backed away from the beleaguered Republican Party. They are simply grateful that one less evangelical preacher is ordaining the GOP as God’s Only Party. They believe that if evangelical preachers are inactive then it helps their candidates win elections.
Perhaps others of us are more curious about why exactly Warren switched his positions.
Is his flip driven by a changing cultural ethos? After all, fundamentalist leaders are aging and losing power, the Southern Baptist Convention is declining, Republicans have proven their hypocrisy once too often, Americans now know that the Iraq war was the wrong war and economic anxiety is spiking. Is Warren moved by the winds of cultural change?
Or is the purpose behind his change driven by his reading the big Bible? Does the Bible have anything to do with reshaping his agenda?
In 2004, he read selectively from only a few biblical texts. Since the Bible hasn’t changed, did Warren discover the biblical witness’ call to care for the poor, the ill and the earth?
For those of us who believe in the centrality of the Bible for determining our moral vision, we hope the answer is a resounding “yes.”
The CNN-covered Saturday forum at Warren’s California church with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Barrack Obama (D-Ill.) didn’t answer the question about why Warren has shifted from endorser to interviewer.
Neither did one get a convictional sense that Warren’s moral agenda is as broad and deep as some claim. His questions to the presidential candidates began with personal morality and faith in Jesus Christ. He spent time of abortion, stem cell research and gay marriage, three of his 2004 non-negotiable issues. He focused on the courts. He did ask about AIDS, Darfur, human trafficking and religious persecution.
Warren could have helped viewers to understand the long moral arc of the Christian vision with a sharp focus on environmental responsibility to address climate change; the call of Jesus to be peacemakers, instead of peacekeepers; the imperative to seek a justice society that protects the poor from predatory capitalism; the obligation to guard the stranger in the land ”the immigrant; and the ethical duty to provide health care to all.
Those issues and others are as critical to the Christian moral agenda as abortion and personal morality.
One senses that Warren has found some new biblical texts but still needs a more thorough reading of the big Bible.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
“Golden Rule Politics: Reclaiming the Rightful Role of Faith in Politics”