I’ve been trying to decide which is more troubling: That our two candidates for president are making their first joint campaign appearance at a church, or that the pastor of that church has put himself in the position of campaign moderator.
I’m leaning toward the pastor.
Politicians will be politicians, after all. John McCain and Barack Obama are running for office and everything they do is calculated to win votes. They both want and need the evangelical Christian vote and they have shown they are willing to do just about anything to get it. We expect that, and so far we seem to be OK with that. What if their host Saturday evening wasn’t Rick Warren but Pat Robertson? Or Jeremiah Wright? Or Louis Farrakhan? Imagine the uproar.
Rick Warren’s role in this made-for-TV event is even more distressing and possibly just as calculating.
Since all but endorsing George W. Bush in 2004, Warren has wisely and commendably avoided getting involved in partisan politics. “I have never been considered a part of the religious right, because I don’t believe politics is the most effective way to change the world,” he told Time magazine.
Neither did Warren’s Lord and Savior.
So why is the pastor of California’s Saddleback megachurch pastor inserting himself into such a high-profile and high-risk political role? Megachurch megalomania? Only Warren knows for sure. In an email he sent to On Faith moderators Sally Quinn and Jon Meacham, Warren explains the purpose of Saturday’s Saddleback Civil Forum:
“Debate and town hall questions typically deal with hot political topics like the war, the border, the price of oil and reaction to campaign statements. While important, these tend to be short-term issues on which the candidates have repeatedly stated their positions. The Saddleback Civil Forum will focus on the core convictions of each candidate that would shape how each one would lead and their views on America’s role, direction, and culture.”
If there’s anyone who can get to each candidate’s “core convictions,” it’s Warren. But McCain and Obama are battle-tested campaign veterans. They won’t be speaking off the cuff or from the heart. They will be reciting well-researched and rehearsed responses. They won’t be testifying. They’ll be dictating.
However sincere his attempt, however well-crafted his questions, Warren will merely be providing the candidates with another campaign podium — or in this case, an immensely respected and valued pulpit. Saddleback Church will become the backdrop for McCain and Obama political ads. (The Matthew 25 PAC, which has endorsed Obama, already is planning a TV ad to run during the forum.) Warren won’t be endorsing either candidate, but by their presence they will be endorsing him and his church.
I admire Warren’s ministries and the way he has handled his megasuccess.
I believe he is sincere when he says, “I am praying for a second reformation of the church that will focus more on deeds than words. The first Reformation was about beliefs. This one needs to be about behavior. … We’ve had a Reformation; what we need now is a transformation.”
I believe he is serious about following Jesus and attacking what he calls the five “Global Goliaths” – spiritual emptiness, egocentric leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic disease, and illiteracy/poor education.
I believe he has set the standard for how megachurch pastors should handle their personal success. He and his wife Kay give away 90 percent of their income through three foundations: Acts of Mercy, which serves those infected and affected by AIDS; Equipping the Church, which trains church leaders in developing countries; and The Global PEACE Fund, which fights poverty, disease, and illiteracy.
If there’s any megachurch pastor in America who can resist the temptations of political power, it’s Rick Warren. But resisting political power isn’t the same thing as insisting that political power be compassionate and just. Asking political candidates about their core convictions isn’t the same thing as demanding they remain faithful to them. Asking powerful politicians to tell the truth isn’t the same thing as speaking prophetic truth to power.
Whenever a pastor gets tangled up with a political campaign, I’m reminded of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in “Strength to Love,” a sermon collection. “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state,” King wrote. “It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
Rick Warren and his church can’t be the conscience of the state when they are co-hosting a campaign event.
Is Warren is surrendering his moral and spiritual authority here? Does the pastor of any church, or any religious leader for that matter, have any business playing any sort of political power-broker role, especially in a place of worship?