Rick Warren “takes on the world” or so says Time magazine.
The famously purpose-driven pastor is not only aiming for global PEACE (promote reconciliation, equip servant leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, educate the next generation), but also hopes to “redefine presidential politics“. To that end he is hosting Barack Obama and John McCain this week at his 23,000-member Saddleback Church in Orange County, California.
“These are friends of mine that happen to be very different in leadership style, philosophy and background,” Warren said [to the Orange County Register]. “I would like America to get to know them the way I do and make a decision based not on campaign ads that tend to caricature the other guy. I'm going to ask questions that are very different from a lot of the debate and town hall forums.” (Disclosure: I am quoted at length in the article.)
Both Time and the Register's stories raise salient points about covering religion and politics this year. Time's piece brings up issues of tone and balance, while the Register's suggests untapped possibilities.
Time praises Warren as the prototypical “new evangelical” leader. Reaching beyond the Religious Right's “control-the-body” issues (gay marriage, stem cells, and abortion), Warren has embraced a broad set of social concerns, including the environment, poverty and HIV-AIDS.
Warren's energy, intellect, compassion and vision make him sound like a better candidate than the ones already in the presidential race: “He is a natural leader, a pathological schmoozer, insatiably curious and often the smartest person in the room.”
Bottom line: Does Warren really walk on water? Since his PEACE outreach began in Rwanda in 2005, almost 2,000 volunteers have tackled health and development issues there. But according to one USAID-funded worker, the “purpose driven” volunteers have had little impact on the nation's deep-rooted problems.
When Warren hears the criticism he laughs, saying Time's reporter spoke to the “wrong guys.” Working through churches produces change that Western-style measurements can't identify. In other words, Warren's following God's plan, which can't be judged by human standards.
When reporter David Van Biema tweaks Warren, he glosses over the pastor's emerging model for being religious in the 21st century world: “Warren may not aspire to global mogulhood, but he is clearly near giddy over occupying a globetrotting catalyst status normally reserved for ex-Presidents.” The line says a lot about Warren, but does not begin to probe his influence and impact.
Time pulls its punches by using descriptive language. Words like “giddy,” “coronation,” and “sales pitch,” elicit images that undercut the positive picture that the magazine otherwise elaborates. Likewise, the magazine's attempt at “balance”—is Warren really accomplishing anything?—is not seriously engaged. What are the measures for success in working in countries like Rwanda? Are there different standards for secular and spiritual outreach? Has Warren developed benchmarks for his programs? The questions are salient, especially as the number of religious NGOs grows.
Time's middle of the road approach seeks to satisfy all readers. Warren sounds like a great guy but the zingers are hidden in plain sight for those who can see them. Attempts at balance fall short, and most surprisingly, the article fails to place Warren in historical context. By adopting a broader social agenda, is he seeking to realign American evangelicalism with its 19th century roots? Evangelicalism has a long tradition of melding religion and politics in the service of creating a better world (at least according to its lights). How does Warren see himself in regard to this tradition?
The Register's more modest coverage of the upcoming Saddleback Civil Forum on Leadership and Compassion raises questions about covering religion and politics. How does a reporter approach the forum? (And do you send your religion or your politics person?) Is this a vital experiment that can help redefine what the public wants and needs to know about candidates? Can a minister preside over a “civil” discussion? Will candidates reveal aspects of their identities that go beyond sound bites and moments of scripted compassion?
Warren is correct: current political coverage neither tells us what we want or need to know. I am happy to give him an opportunity to show the media how to do it better. I hope, for our sake, he succeeds.