Rick Warren Walks the Line

Last week, Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman sat down for an interesting discussion with Rick Warren during which Warren worked hard to maintain the image he has created for himself as a moderate, nonpartisan religious figure (rather than the James Dobson-lite he actually is) but struggled to explain himself when asked to clarify some of his seemingly contradictory positions.

For instance, when the topic of the discussion turned to reproductive choice, Warren made no bones about his opposition to it, referring to it repeatedly as a “holocaust” and proclaiming that he has, and will continue, to press Barack Obama on the issue: 

Of course I want to reduce the number of abortions. Barack Obama is a friend of mine. We totally disagree on this issue. I’ve actually talked to him privately about this before and intend to again in the future. It’s not something I protest out on the street about. It’s something you deal with individually as rational civil people. The reason I believe life begins at conception is ‘cause the Bible says it. In Psalm 139, David says “you formed me in my mother’s womb. You planned every day of my life before I was born.” To me that means God had a purpose driven life for you before you were even born. He already knew in advance. To me, abortion short circuits that plan … [T]o me it is kind of a charade in that people say we believe abortions should be safe and rare. Why do you believe it should be rare? If you don’t believe life begins at conception, it shouldn’t be rare. That’s an illogical statement. Don’t tell me it should be rare. That’s like saying on the Holocaust well maybe we could save 20% of the Jewish people in Poland and Germany and get them out and we should be satisfied with that. I’m not satisfied with that. I want the Holocaust ended.

When the conversation then turned to the subject of torture, Warren proclaimed that he was “totally against torture,” but when Waldman asked if he had ever made that position clear to President Bush, Warren said that he had not because it was not his place and stating that presidents “don’t need me to be a political advisor. I’m not a pundit. I’m not a politician and that’s why I don’t take sides.”

When Waldman then smartly asked Warren why he was pressing Obama on choice but not pressing Bush on torture, Warren hemmed and hawed, explaining that “everybody has a single issue that they care about” and that for him that issue is the “America holocaust” of abortion:

I just didn’t have the opportunity. It’s actually when Barack, the first time I’d invited Barack-before he’d even decided to run-when I’d invited him to our AIDS conference and we came out and we were just sitting around and we were talking about different issues and that one came up. Actually, that’s not true, it even started before that. I was invited, before I invited Barack out, to speak to the Democratic Senate Caucus and it was Barbara Boxer and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Harry Reed and Chuck Schumer--all of these guys in the room. And Barack actually brought it up. And he said, “Hey Rick, let’s talk about the big elephant in the room.” And he said, ‘When we Democrats, we do stuff for the poor and we do stuff for the sick, we don’t get many letters about it. But when we vote to support abortion we get thousands and tens-of-thousands of letters. What’s the issue here?” And I had to say, “Well, let me just explain this. Almost everybody has a single issue that they care about. You know, it may be gay rights, it may be farm aid, it may be- everybody has some issue that they care about the most. And I said, “let me just go around the room.” I said, “Hillary, when you were growing up, you were probably a single issue voter because it was during the civil rights movement. And to me-uh, to you-a candidate could be right on everything else; foreign aid, jobs, economy, but if they were wrong on civil rights, there’s no way you were going to vote for them OK. That’s understandable.” And I went around the room and when I came to Chuck Schumer I said, “Chuck, how bad, if you had a candidate and he was right in EVERY SINGLE AREA that you agreed with but he’s a holocaust denier, there’s no way you’re gonna vote for a holocaust denier. That’s a single issue issue for you. And I said, “For these people who believe life begins at birth, alright--at conception--it’s an America holocaust. They believe that there’s 40million people who should be here. And to them that’s an issue.”

Likewise, when Waldman raised the issue of Warren’s support for Prop 8, Warren again danced around, saying that he fully supports equal rights before likening gay unions to incest, polygamy, and pedophilia, claiming that defeating Prop 8 would have limited free speech, and then finally playing the tired “I-have-gay-friends-so-I-can’t-be-a-homophobe” card: 

One controversial moment for you in the last election was your support for proposition 8 in California. … Just to clarify, do you support civil unions or domestic partnerships?

I don’t know if I’d use the term there but I support full equal rights for everybody in America. I don’t believe we should have unequal rights depending on particular lifestyles so I fully support equal rights.

What about partnership benefits in terms of insurance or hospital visitation?

You know, not a problem with me. The issue to me, I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.

Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?

Oh , I do. For 5,000 years, marriage has been defined by every single culture and every single religion – this is not a Christian issue. Buddhist, Muslims, Jews – historically, marriage is a man and a woman. And the reason I supported Proposition 8, is really a free speech issue. Because first the court overrode the will of the people, but second there were all kinds of threats that if that did not pass then any pastor could be considered doing hate speech if he shared his views that he didn’t think homosexuality was the most natural way for relationships, and that would be hate speech. We should have freedom of speech, ok? And you should be able to have freedom of speech to make your position and I should be able to have freedom of speech to make my position, and can’t we do this in a civil way.

Most people know I have many gay friends. I’ve eaten dinner in gay homes. No church has probably done more for people with AIDS than Saddleback Church. Kay and I have given millions of dollars out of Purpose Driven Life helping people who got AIDS through gay relationships. So they can’t accuse me of homophobia. I just don’t believe in the redefinition of marriage.

There you have it. The kinder, gentler face of the same old Religious Right.