By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Politically, Rick Warren is a puzzle. He is determined to get evangelicals to expand their political horizons beyond hot-button issues, but he often finds himself mired in controversy surrounding those very issues.
Gay rights activists decried Barack Obama's invitation to him to deliver his inauguration invocation because Warren had supported Proposition 8, California's recently adopted gay marriage ban. Christian-right leaders bashed him after he appeared to dial back support for Prop. 8 in a recent interview with Larry King.
Unlike many evangelical leaders of recent decades, the Rev. Rick Warren doesn't want to be a lightning rod. When I asked him before the last election whether the Christian right had tarnished the image of American evangelicals, Warren didn't blink: "without a doubt."
"I never was a part of it," Warren said of the Christian right. "I'm trying to stake out what I call a common ground for the common good."
Indeed, Warren has adopted causes important to the political right and the left. He toes the conservative evangelical line on gay marriage and abortion rights but has also decried global warming and taken a high-profile role battling AIDS in Africa, two traditionally liberal issues.
Lately, though, Warren has attracted more attention for his ability to rile both sides in the nation's smoldering culture wars. Months after his appearance at President Obama's inauguration enraged gay rights activists and abortion rights supporters, Warren has emerged from a self-imposed media exile only to outrage conservative Christians. That's because he appeared to dial back support for Proposition 8, California's recently adopted ban on gay marriage, in an interview last week with CNN's Larry King. "[I] never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop. 8 was going," Warren told King, even though he'd taped a video urging his Orange County congregation to support the gay marriage ban. Warren argued that encouraging parishioners to back Prop. 8 doesn't make him an activist against gay marriage.
When Warren canceled a scheduled appearance last Sunday on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, conservative evangelical activists grew even more suspicious. "He appears to be running away from the biblical truth on what marriage is," says Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America. "He does need to do a public interview to clear this up."
Warren's aides say he plans to do an interview to clarify his support for Proposition 8. And they insist that Warren pulled out of Sunday's interview because of exhaustion. But at a moment when Warren is expanding his role from megachurch pastor to national and international public figure, his increasing proclivity for sowing controversy is threatening his status as political peacemaker. "He would really like it if everyone would love Rick Warren, and when they don't, he's troubled," says Jeffery Sheler, author of the forthcoming Warren biography Prophet of Purpose. "The most damaging thing would be if the way he's perceived makes it more difficult to be a bridge builder."
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More Rick Warren controversy: Yesterday, the Anglican Church in North America—a coalition of breakaway Episcopal congregations and dioceses that left the Episcopal Church over its liberal stances on issues like the ordination of gays—announced that Warren will be the keynote speaker at its upcoming organizing conference.