Rick Warren's appearance over the weekend at the Muslim Public Affairs Council conference in Long Beach, Calif., got some attention over what the purpose-driven pastor had to say about gays in light of the controversy that his scheduled appearance at Barack Obama's inauguration has stirred up. "For the media's purpose, I happen to love gays and straights," Warren told the audience, noting that he'd met the musician Melissa Etheridge, a lesbian, backstage at the conference and that he'd long been a fan.
Interesting. But I was struck more by the Warren's appearance as the keynote speaker before the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), since evangelical figures have been among the nation's most high-profile critics of Islam. Search for "Islam" on Focus on the Family's website and you'll get results mostly on "radical" or "militant" Islam. A poll last year by the Pew Forum for Religion & Public Life showed that white evangelicals take a much dimmer view of Muslims than Americans of other religious traditions:
Among religious groups, white evangelical Protestants stand out for their negative views of Muslims. While roughly half of white mainline Protestants (51 percent) and white Catholics (48 percent) express favorable views of Muslims, only about quarter of white evangelicals (24 percent) say the same. Similar religious divisions are seen in views of Muslim Americans.
I spoke with MPAC executive director Salam Al-Marayati about Muslim-evangelical relations. Excerpts:
Were you surprised that Rick Warren agreed to address the Muslim Public Affairs Council?
The Orange County Muslim community was engaged with his church before this year, so we weren't surprised. He was very open and we met with him after various positive interactions and he agreed to speak at our convention.
Would you say that Warren's willingness to engage with Muslims is representative of the wider evangelical world, or is he an anomaly?
We see the same spirit of constructive engagement with other evangelicals, including Chris Seiple [president of the Institute for Global Engagement] and Joel Hunter, who has one of the largest churches in Florida. We have very positive relationships with the Fuller Seminary.
Are you saying the evangelical voices that publicly condemn Islam are in the minority?
There is a vocal group that includes people like Pat Robertson who have been very negative and that has sown enmity between the Muslims and Christians and has dictated the discourse. But it's the same between Christian extremists and Muslim extremists....
Extremists get the attention and disproportionately influence the relationship with the other. So if we have Muslim extremists causing destruction, they get all the attention and the moderates are dismissed. The criticism is that the moderates aren't speaking out enough. We don't know the percentage [of evangelicals] that Robertson or [Focus on the Family founder] James Dobson represents. They're certainly significant but they are two voices. The rise of people like Rick Warren and Chris Seiple and Joel Hunter has changed that in the last 10 years.... It's a much needed and refreshing phase in terms of Christian-Muslim relations that we're in right now.
The more enmity there is between Christians and Muslims, the more the argument that religion is irrelevant is going to become a reality among Americans. There is a need for religion in terms of peacemaking and dealing with poverty and in dealing with not only the economic crisis but also the spiritual crisis. We need to keep religion relevant.
How do Muslim relations with American evangelicals compare with their relations with other religious traditions?
The other two groups are Catholics and Jews. We have more of a history and have made more advances but have more challenges. We've learned in those experiences that the dialogue must have a social goal. If we go back to theology, there is nothing achievable, nothing to gain. There must be a social commitment with the goal of benefiting society... it's up to God to decide in the next life who's right and wrong.
- Read more by Dan Gilgoff.