Warren, an "evangelist" who's "straying"?

obama and warren 03As the countdown continues until Saturday's Saddleback Church "Civil Forum on the Presidency," journalists continue to probe the ministry of Rick "Purpose Driven Pastor" Warren. To no one's surprise, the big news kid on the preacher's block has weighed in on his new, improved, nuanced, broader take on the Gospel. Guess what? The Los Angeles Times struggled to handle the religion and doctrine details in this scene. This is becoming par for the course. Take the lede, for example:

When John McCain and Barack Obama appear on the same stage Saturday at the sprawling religious campus of Orange County's Saddleback Church, their presence will vividly underline the reach that has made Pastor Rick Warren among the most significant evangelists of his generation.

There is no doubt, of course, that Warren has become one of the most significant "evangelicals" of his generation. However, as the story notes a few sentences later, he is a pastor, an author and a social activist. I do not think that he has ever left his pulpit and traveled around doing the preaching and crusade work of a full-time "evangelist."

The bottom line: In the rush to pin the "next Billy Graham" label on Warren, it is easy to mess up the details and miss some of the differences between the careers of these very different men.

So Graham was and is an "evangelist" who is also a major "evangelical" leader. Warren may even, from time to time, preach "evangelistic" sermons. But he has never been a professional "evangelist." Words matter, folks.

Now, let's move right on to the good stuff. This is politics, of course.

Once again, the emphasis is on Warren's decision to broaden his ministry and his messages in ways that may help Democrats and hurt Republicans. Check out this very blunt statement:

... Warren's willingness to soft-pedal political issues once central to U.S. evangelicals, such as opposition to abortion, has opened him to criticism that he has strayed from his calling to spread the Gospel. It's likely that both fans and critics will be watching closely when Warren plays host to the two presidential contenders at his church complex in Lake Forest, home to 22,000 weekend worshipers.

OK, for years Graham has chosen to avoid making blunt, public statements on abortion and other hot-button issues. He has never backed away from his beliefs, but he has refused to trumpet them in order to hold together broader, ecumenical coalitions that have backed his evangelistic crusades. Graham has taken heat for this, but the overwhelming majority of Christian leaders have not said that this strategy caused him to stray from his "calling to spread the Gospel."

Warren is now in a similar position. To back its very blunt claim, the Los Angeles Times really needs to nail down some major evangelicals who -- on the record -- agree with this "straying" label.

I know I am being picky. But these kinds of details are important if a newspaper is going to build a foundation of facts that support statements as sweeping as the crunch paragraphs in this feature story. Check this out:

Many evangelicals believe that Warren's growing profile, and his willingness to welcome Obama to his pulpit, are evidence that he has emerged as the most pivotal figure in U.S. evangelicalism. The 54-year-old pastor, they say, is emblematic of a new breed of evangelicals who put social justice ahead of partisan politics. Some go so far as to call the plain-talking Warren, a bear of a man who prefers bluejeans to business suits, the Billy Graham of his era.

"He's a guy whose message has met the right moment," said Richard Land, a leading authority with the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination to which Warren's church belongs. ...

But detractors see Warren as a spiritual entrepreneur who has built his religious empire on what they call generic self-help ideas found in "The Purpose Driven Life."

"For many evangelical leaders, Rick Warren is either a little too naive or a little too shrewd," said the Rev. Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, a Washington group that works to meld Christian teachings into the debate over public policies.

Note that even Schenck -- who is one very candid man -- is quoting others, second hand.

rickWhere are the on-the-record quotes? Where's the beef?

Once again, what this story is trying to describe is a two-sided equation. The most traditional forms of Christian faith through the centuries have proclaimed what, in today's world, are considered very conservative doctrines on moral and cultural issues. At the same time, there is no question where the saints of the ages stood on issues of social justice, human compassion and carrying for the needy at all stages of life. The question is how traditional believers try to live their lives, as citizens, while keeping both parts of this equation in balance.

As E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post told a Pew Forum audience the other day:

... I believe the Catholic Church's job is to make every Catholic feel guilty about some public issue. I think when the church is doing its job, it actually makes liberal Catholics think twice about abortion, stem cell research, doctor-assisted suicide. And it makes more-conservative Catholics think twice about their stance on the unfettered market, the poor, the death penalty and a belligerent foreign policy. I think the church will continue to play that role.

The only thing I would question in that statement is the presence of the words "think twice about" -- both times.

So read the rest of the Los Angeles Times story, even though there is nothing there that is really news. In fact, all of this is about a tension that is really old. Ancient, even. But you would never know that, just by reading our newspapers at the moment.

Top photos: Yes, we need to run this picture again. Bottom photo: Just another variation on a Warren mug shot, created by critics out in cyberspace.

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