The Real Losers in the Obama-Warren Controversy

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This week two very smart Christian believers — one by extending an invitation, the other by accepting it — have helped the fight against AIDS and burnished their respective reputations. But in the process, they also created a defining dilemma for the Religious Right.

Some time ago, Rick Warren, megapastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County and author of the mega-seller The Purpose-Driven Life, along with his wife Kay, invited Democratic Sen. Barack Obama to speak today at the second annual AIDS conference at Warren's church. Other politicians were to participate, notably Sen. Sam Brownback, a born-again Christian turned conservative Catholic who, like Obama, may have presidential ambitions. But while Brownback was to speak to his natural constituency, Obama's participation is a divisive issue for one overriding reason: he is pro-choice.

That Warren should lend him a lectern has infuriated the pro-life activists and general hard-liners on the religious right. Conservative talk radio host Kevin McCullough wrote on his blog, "Why would Warren marry the moral equivalency of his pulpit — a sacred piece of honor in evangelical traditions — to the inhumane, sick and sinister evil that Obama has worked for as a legislator?" An open letter signed by Phyllis Schlafly, head of the conservative Eagle Forum, and 17 other less prominent figures, most from anti-abortion groups, contended "If Senator Obama cannot defend the most helpless citizens in our country, he has nothing to say to the AIDS crisis. You cannot fight one evil while justifying another." The din became sufficiently loud that Saddleback posted a response stressing Warren's disagreement with Obama on abortion but noting that "Obama was invited to share his views on AIDS, not abortion or any other issue."

A least one powerful Evangelical apparently found that unconvincing. In a statement Dr. Wiley Drake, pastor of First Baptist Church in Buena Park, Callif., and Second Vice President of the 42 million-member Southern Baptist Convention told the Los Angeles Times, "You can't work together with people totally opposed to what you are. This kind of conference is just going to lead people astray."

Drake, however, is not the only influential SBC member with opinions on the topic. When I called Richard Land, head of the denomination's influential Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and its principal Washington strategist, he agreed with Warren. "Rick is having a summit on AIDS, and Barack Obama has said some compelling things about the issue. I work all the time in coalition with people to the right and left of me, when we're in agreement on a specific issue. One of the markers of Evangelicals is the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time."

So if two leaders of the Southern Baptists have different views of the debate, which way will the rest of the Right jump? It's not clear yet, but they would be wise to follow Land, or risk becoming the only losers in a fascinating cultural transaction.

The invitation works perfectly for Obama. Through his autobiography The Audacity of Hope and his public statements, the Senator had already positioned himself as one of the rare potential Democratic Presidential candidates who can truly talk the Christian talk. Today's speech can only reinforce that impression. Says Collin Hansen, an associate editor at the Evangelical monthly Christianity Today, " I think the Senator's political team, or whoever's making the decision, was smart to associate him with Warren. It suggests that there are Evangelical moderates that they can work with, or reach, or maybe even attract their votes."

The situation also enhances Warren's standing. For years, Billy Graham was lambasted for inviting theological liberals — as well as people unpopular in the Evangelical South, like Martin Luther King, Jr. — to his crusades. He invariably responded that the attendees were endorsing his cause, not the other way around. Graham knew that he would alienate some co-believers, but they were people he was happy to alienate. He was in the business of leading evangelicalism back into the American mainstream by distinguishing it from hard-core fundamentalism, one of whose most irritating characteristics was "second-degree separation," a philosophy of ostracizing other Christians simply for dealing with people considered less spiritually pure. Graham's national reputation flourished while that of his opponents suffered.

The last thing that political evangelicalism should do is play the fundamentalist to Warren's Graham. There are those like David Kuo, the former second-in-command at George W. Bush's faith-based office who expressed his frustrations in the recent book Tempting Faith, who feel that, as he puts it, "there is one camp [in Evangelicalism] who truly want to follow Jesus, and another, much narrower, the Christian political power brokers, who want to follow conservative politics." He thinks the latter will soon be exposed to the majority as wordly operators rather than God's servants and shrivel away. He regards some of Warren's more prominent critics this week as prime examples.

If those critics want to hang on a little longer... or for that matter, if they want to prove Kuo wrong both in his assessment and his prediction... or if they'd simply like to live up to the full meaning of their pro-life commitment, they should make peace with Obama's appearance at Saddleback. Otherwise, more broad-minded Christians may eventually demand a different kind of leadership.

At the conference today, Obama said he "respectfully but unequivocally" disagreed with those who do not want to include condom use in the fight against AIDS. But he also commented, "Let me say this loud and clear — I don't think that we can deny that there is a moral and spiritual component to prevention — that in too many places all over the world where HIV/AIDS is prevalent — including by the way right here in the United States — the relationship between men and women, between sexuality and spirituality, has broken down, and needs to be repaired." Obama, Warren and Brownback all took an AIDS test. And Warren, responding to the controversy, said "I've got two friends here, a Republican and a Democrat, why?" Warren asked. "Because you've got to have two wings to fly."

Unless, that is, you're content to stand on the runway yelling.