Rick Warren has a pattern of political activism followed by political denial of activism. But this time—on Proposition 8—Warren has been caught on videotape voicing contradictory positions, supporting an anti-gay marriage initiative in California and then saying he didn’t campaign for it.
Remembering an earlier episode places the current episode in context.
Most folk do not remember that Warren endorsed George Bush only six days before the 2004 presidential election: “Tuesday, Nov. 2, will be the most important election day U.S. citizens have faced in 50 years.”
“President Bush and Senator Kerry have very different opinions about the type of people who should become Supreme Court justices,” Warren wrote. “They could not have more opposite views about these matters, and each man would shape the court in very different ways.”
Sent to more than 100,000 pastors on his e-mail list and distributed through the Southern Baptist Convention’s press system, Warren argued, “For those of us who accept the Bible as God’s Word … there are five issues that are non-negotiable.” He named the issues as abortion, stem-cell harvesting, homosexual marriage, human cloning and euthanasia.
“To me, they’re not even debatable, because God’s Word is clear on these issues,” wrote Warren. “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.”
The day after the Nov. 2 election, Warren said on PBS, “As you know, I don’t endorse candidates.”
When Bush nominated in October 2005 Harriet Miers as a Supreme Court justice, 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,” said Warren. “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.”
But by 2008, with the winds having clearly shifted against the Bush presidency, Warren said on CNN, “I don’t support anybody for president publicly” and “I never endorse. I never campaign.”
He repeated that note a few days later on CNN. “I don’t think it’s right for pastors to endorse in the first place,” said Warren. “I would never endorse a candidate. I would never campaign for a candidate.”
Fast-forward to the fall of 2008. Warren announced his support for Proposition 8 on Oct. 23, less than two weeks before the November elections.
His timing then paralleled his timing before the 2004 November election. In both cases, he waded into the political process in the final days to help push his side to victory.
“Let me say this just really clearly,” Warren told his church members in a video. “We support Proposition 8, and if you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8.”
The pastor of a church with more than 20,000 members said: “I urge you to support Proposition 8 and pass that word on. I’m going to be sending out notes to pastors on what I believe about this, but everybody knows what I believe about it.”
Proposition 8 passed.
On April 7, Warren told CNN’s Larry King that he had never endorsed California’s Proposition 8.
“During the whole Proposition 8 thing, I never once went to a meeting, never once issued a statement, never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop. 8 was going,” said Warren.
No sooner had Warren made that claim than a YouTube video appeared showing him contradicting himself.
Busted by a YouTube video, Warren responded the next day through a spokeswoman, Kristin Cole, an account executive with a Texas public relations firm.
“When Dr. Warren told Larry King that he never campaigned for California’s Proposition 8, he was referring to not participating in the official two-year organized advocacy effort specific to the ballot initiative in that state,” said the statement. “Because he’s a pastor, not an activist, in response to inquiries from church members, he issued an email and video message to his congregation days before the election confirming where he and Saddleback Church stood on this issue.”
Warren’s statement made matters worse. “Official,” “organized advocacy,” “pastor, not an activist,” and “message to congregation” rang inauthentically. No written statement could outweigh the video evidence.
Warren then withdrew at the last minute from an Easter Sunday morning appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” which had promoted the program as an exclusive interview with “the megachurch pastor who rocketed to national fame with his best-selling book ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ and became a lightning rod for controversy when he was selected by Barack Obama to give the invocation at the inauguration.”
Citing exhaustion and illness, Warren’s cancellation helped him escape having a national audience see side-by-side the contradictory videotapes and being asked directly to reconcile his conflicting statements.
A Warren aide sent an e-mail to a reporter explaining his withdrawal from the ABC program, which blamed fumes from a still drying pulpit for part of Warren’s ill health, adding even more doubt about his real motive.
Before Warren speaks publicly about his contradictory pattern of endorsement and denial, he needs to resolve the purpose of his life. Does he want to speak prophetically to culture about his moral vision or does he want to play to the crowd? The former approach will restrict his access to the White House. The latter approach will enable him to be a chaplain to culture and a seller of books. He can’t have it both ways.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.