Rick Warren is our new Billy Graham – at the center of not only his own Christian tradition, but of American civil religion as well. Churches follows his direction (most recently into Rwanda), and political candidates seek his blessing (Exhibit A: The Saddleback Forum).
There has been a lot of talk about the risks that Warren has taken – inviting the pro-choice Obama to address a decidedly pro-life gathering on the topic of AIDS, for example.
Another risk he is taking – more subtle, perhaps, but equally profound – is around religious diversity.
Last week at the Clinton Global Initiative, Warren was asked how “the church” could help to solve poverty. His response was to rattle off the numbers of Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Christians in the world – in that order – and make a plea that the public and private sectors take seriously “the faith sector as the third leg of the stool of successful development”.
Warren consistently used the language of a religious pluralist. He spoke of “mosques, temples and churches” as central to the life of villages in the developing world. He underscored the fact that there are huge numbers of people of faith in the world, and huge numbers of houses of worship in places where clinics, banks and schools don’t exist. Those people of faith can be trained to be the arms and legs of any development plan, and those houses of worship can double as clinics, banks and schools.
This is a big deal, because it signals an important turn in the American Evangelical tradition – from viewing people of other faiths primarily as lost souls requiring conversion to viewing them as partners in the plan to make earth more humane and just. “Progressive Evangelicals” like Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo (read an interview here with Campolo on interfaith cooperation), have long been involved in interfaith efforts, but the mainline of that tradition has always been more wary. That could be changing.
I caught up with Warren after the panel and asked him directly how he thought about religious diversity. He talked to me about his friendship with his Muslim neighbor, and about how excited he was to speak at the upcoming MPAC conference in December. He was keenly aware of the important role that Muslims played in helping victims during the genocide in Rwanda, and he was engaging that community in his current efforts in that country.
That approach is American pragmatism at its best: a visionary leader engaging all possible partners in his plan to transform earth.
When I asked Warren to name something that he admired about Muslims, he answered without hesitation: “you people are not afraid to talk about God, he said with a smile. It’s always, ‘God willing’, or ‘God bless’, or ‘Thanks be to God.’ That’s something I admire, because I come from the same place.”
That is American religion at its best.
Let’s hope the church and the country follow.