Rick Warren's Journey From Political Peacemaker to Lightning Rod

The evangelical leader is getting attention for his ability to rile both sides in the culture wars.

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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."

The flap over his Larry King appearance speaks as much to Warren's struggle to adjust to a higher-profile role as to his unorthodox politics. Long accustomed to speaking to like-minded evangelicals, Warren has developed an informal style that eschews speechwriters and image consultants. But in discussing Proposition 8 off the cuff on CNN, a close associate says, Warren misspoke in appearing to disavow his support for the measure. And Sheler says, "He would have benefited from writing out talking points or allowing a staffer to help vet his thoughts."

But conservatives were so quick to pounce on Warren's seeming flip-flop because they have long been put off by his overtures to liberals. When Warren invited then Sen. Barack Obama to his Saddleback Church for a global AIDS summit in 2006, antiabortion groups objected to giving a "pro-death" politician an evangelical platform. And when Warren announced that he would host a forum for presidential candidates Obama and John McCain last summer, conservative Christians blasted his decision to de-emphasize hot-button issues and focus on areas like poverty and climate change.

After Warren's recent CNN appearance, his critics on the right are as miffed about his warmth toward "all my gay friends" as they are about his specific misstatement on Proposition 8. "I hope he is not intimidated by the tactics of homosexual activists," says Concerned Women for America's Wright. "He has a unique ability to present biblical truth on marriage to a wider audience."