One of Rick Warren's prized achievements over the past few years has been his outreach to Africa. The influential pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, author of best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life, has become an influential voice in several countries on the continent, including Rwanda, Kenya and Uganda. But that prominence has recently drawn him into controversy. When the Ugandan legislature began considering a draconian anti-homosexuality bill which in one version would have punished "aggravated homosexuality" with death or life imprisonment Warren was castigated for not denouncing the proposed law, especially when one of its most public supporters was revealed to have been a speaker at a Saddleback-sponsored seminar. The American preacher severed ties with Pastor Martin Ssempa in October but demurred from saying more, saying it would be interfering in Ugandan politics. But after criticism grew in the U.S., Warren on Thursday released a video statement to Ugandan church leaders condemning the proposed law.
"As an American pastor," Warren said in his statement, "it is not my role to interfere with the politics of other nations, but it is my role to speak out on moral issues." He told the Ugandan pastors that the bill was "unjust, extreme and un-Christian toward homosexuals." The bill's requirement that Ugandans report any meeting with homosexuals to authorities, he said, would hinder the ministry of the church and force homosexuals who are HIV positive underground. He also defended the timing of his denunciation. "Because I didn't rush to make a public statement," he said, "some erroneously concluded that I supported this terrible bill, and some even claimed I was a sponsor of the bill. You in Uganda know that this is untrue." He added, "I oppose the criminalization of homosexuality."
He remained steadfast in affirming his continuing belief in traditional marriage. "We can never deny or water down what God's Word clearly teaches about sexuality," he wrote. "Let me be clear that God's Word states that all sex outside of marriage is not what God intends." But, he declared, "at the same time, the church must stand to protect the dignity of all individuals as Jesus did and commanded all of us to do."
Warren has been at the center of other controversies surrounding gay issues. Barack Obama was criticized by gay-rights activists and others when he picked Warren to deliver the invocation at the Inauguration in January. Warren has also come under attack for his characterizations of homosexuality and gay marriage.
In his statement, Warren sought to clear up other matters that have emerged amid the Ugandan bill controversy. He denied knowing Scott Lively, the conservative California preacher whose writings about a global gay agenda to dominate the world have inspired much of Uganda's anti-gay movement. (Lively denounced the Uganda bill last week, saying it went too far.)
Warren also denied being in communication with members of Uganda's Parliament about the issue, saying it was only the Archbishop of Uganda with whom he privately shared his "opposition and concern." On Tuesday, the Rev. Kapya Kaoma, an Anglican pastor from Zambia and the author of a recent report on gays in Africa, said that Warren had immense influence among Uganda's political élite, counting many parliamentarians, including the country's First Lady Janet Museveni (who is reportedly close to Ssempa), among his friends. "He eats with them, he knows what goes on, they respect him," said Kaoma in a conference call. Said Warren: "My influence in that nation has been greatly exaggerated by the media."