By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
When the Rev. Rick Warren walked into a conference room perched above Washington's K Street last Friday to address a group of journalists, I was surprised to see him warmly embrace a New York Times reporter. Warren literally hugged the guy. I could just imagine the Weekly Standard headline: "Country's Top Evangelical Embraces Scourge of the Right."
Then Warren spied Sally Quinn, the Washington Post journalist and famed hostess, and hugged her, too. For a folksy Baptist preacher known for his extensive Hawaiian shirt collection, I thought, this guy sure knows his way around Washington's power circles.
Having never met Warren—I've interviewed him by phone—I approached him, introduced myself, and extended a hand. He wrapped me in his arms like I was his nephew.
Warren, whose Saddleback Church is the nation's largest congregation and whose Purpose Driven Life has sold more copies than any book in American history other than the Bible, mostly avoids the news media. In the months before and after his invocation at Barack Obama's January inauguration, he declined all press requests. And after doing a few sit-downs last Easter, Warren pulled out of a scheduled interview with George Stephanopoulos for ABC News's This Week and has stayed out of the national media spotlight since.
But during an overnight layover last week en route from Southern California to Europe and Africa, Warren let the Washington press corps take a good look at him. He was feted at a dinner party sponsored by Atlantic Monthly publisher David Bradley, taped a segment for Meet the Press, and spent a couple of hours kibitzing with journalists from the national media at Friday's event, organized by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, where I caught him.
The back-and-forth between Warren and we journalists revealed a lot about why he doesn't do this sort of thing too often. The reporters wanted to talk domestic hot-button politics: Warren's role in passing Prop 8—California's gay marriage ban—last year and his take on abortion in the healthcare bill. Warren wanted to talk about Africa and what he sees as Christianity's unrivaled power to transform people from the inside out.
"I've noticed that reporters would rather talk about politics than anything else," Warren said. "I'm not a politician. If I thought politics could change people's hearts, I'd go into government. . . . But I don't, so I'm not. I have no political aspirations and no aspirations to even influence public policy."
One reporter asked Warren about the Catholic Church's threat to sever social-service contracts with the District of Columbia if the city proceeds with a proposed gay marriage law. "If you want to ask about gay marriage, there are 30 states that have voted it down," Warren said good-naturedly. "Ask those people. Why ask me?"
Another reporter inquired about Warren's views on the healthcare debate. "I know absolutely nothing about the healthcare bill," he said. "What I would like to talk to you about is a revolutionary new healthcare plan in Rwanda."
Warren has generated controversy for his role in domestic politics—promoting Proposition 8, speaking at Obama's inauguration—but he is focused mostly on the Third World. In Rwanda, Warren says, his network has trained 1,400 congregation-based healthcare workers in the last year and a half in a region that used to have a single doctor.
Warren's annual global AIDS summit at Saddleback has attracted the world's leading AIDS activists, along with U.S. politicians like Obama and Sen. Sam Brownback. Warren has sent 9,000 Saddleback members to 146 nations in the last five years to promote what he calls his PEACE plan, focused on tackling poverty, disease, illiteracy, corruption, and conflict.
For Warren, the work isn't just humanitarian; it's a way to win souls. He noted that Christians now account for half of Africa's population, up from about 10 percent in 1900. "If you want to know the future of Christianity, it's in the developing world: Africa, Latin America, and Asia," he said. "It ain't here."
Warren's main causes are at once more personal (the winning of souls) and more global (the humanitarian and religious transformation of continents) than the work that consumes Washington on most days. And he wasn't shy about telling the assembled journalists that he thinks his causes are more important, too. "When you have an inside-the-beltway view, you don't realize that most of the world doesn't care about the beltway," he said. "It really doesn't affect them one [way] or the other."
Was it the best way for Warren to endear himself to Washington's media set? Probably not. But it might have helped journalists understand Warren as something larger than a conservative religious voice. Warren isn't the new leader of the religious right. His movement is bigger and broader. It's less focused on Washington. And Warren is intent on making sure journalists get that, one hug at a time.