American politics took an important turn last week: A significant group of theologically conservative Christians no longer wants to be treated as a cog in the Republican political machine.
For a quarter-century since the rise of the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, white evangelical Christians have been widely seen as a Republican preserve. Many of the most politically active evangelical leaders have insisted that the morally freighted social issues — abortion, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage — took priority over all questions.
Enter Rick Warren, who speaks for a new generation of evangelicals who think that harnessing religious faith too closely to electoral politics is bad for religion, and who are broadening the evangelical public agenda to include a concern for global poverty and the scourge of AIDS.
When Warren called a conference at his church last Friday on World AIDS Day, among those he invited were two potential presidential candidates. It was unsurprising that one of them was Sen. Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican and a loyal social conservative who has taken up the AIDS issue with passion and commitment.
But when the other invitee turned out to be Barack Obama, parts of the old evangelical political apparatus went after Warren as a heretic. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, declared that Obama’s views on abortion — Obama is pro-choice — represented “the antithesis of biblical ethics and morality” and insisted that Warren had no business inviting him to Saddleback.
Warren’s church issued a statement reaffirming its strong opposition to abortion, but Warren did not back down. Indeed, he seemed to revel in rejecting the old evangelical political model. “I’m a pastor, not a politician,” Warren told ABC News. “People always say, ‘Rick, are you right wing or left wing?’ I say ‘I’m for the whole bird.’ “
When it came his turn to speak, Obama took on the moral message of evangelical AIDS activists — and then challenged them by getting to what “may be the difficult part for some,” as he put it, that “abstinence and fidelity, although the ideal, may not always be the reality.”
“We’re dealing with flesh-and-blood men and women, and not abstractions,” Obama said, and “if condoms and potentially things like microbicides can prevent millions of deaths, then they should be made more widely available. . . . I don’t accept the notion that those who make mistakes in their lives should be given an effective death sentence.”
That Obama received a standing ovation suggests that Warren is right to sense that growing numbers of Christians are tired of narrowly partisan politics and share his interest in “the whole bird.” In their different spheres, Warren and Obama are both in the business of retailing hope.
BONUS POINT: If you read Obama’s speech, you’ll realize he demonstrates a much truer Christian spirit than the GOP masterminds who have recently tried to push people away from Obama by pointing out that his middle name is Hussein.