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Published August 27, 2008

First Things Blog

The most lasting impact of the recent nationally televised interview Rick Warren did with Senators Barack Obama and John McCain may not have to do with the two presidential candidates. It may be its effect on, and the impression people have of, evangelical Christianity.

Rick Warren, already in the process of becoming one of the most significant faces within the evangelical world, went a good distance toward becoming one of its most recognizable and influential leaders. And because of the tone, grace, and sensibilities with which he approaches politics, Warren is replacing the “religious right” model with a new, better, and, I think, more Christ-based paradigm.

To understand why, it is worth reading Warren's Wall Street Journal interview with Naomi Schaefer Riley. In it, we learn that unlike other prominent religious leaders, Mr. Warren won't be endorsing anyone this fall. He places an admirable emphasis on civility and mutual respect in public discourse (his feelings of respect and even affection for both McCain and Obama were evident). Warren's effort to move evangelical Christians away from what he calls the “combativeness” of the religious right is welcome and long overdue. And his call for conservative Christians to broaden their agenda to include issues like fighting poverty and disease, as well as environmental conservation, rings true to me.

“I don't just care that the little girl is born,” Warren tells Schaefer. “Is she going to be born in poverty? Is she going to be born with AIDS because her mom has AIDS? Is she going to never get an education?”

At the same time, there is a tendency for the mainstream media to exaggerate how much the evangelical community is shifting in its attitudes on key political issues and its worldview. According to Warren, “A lot of people hear [about a broader agenda] and they think, 'Oh, evangelicals are giving up on believing that life begins at conception. They're not giving up on that at all. Not at all.'”

When asked about the assertion that the Democratic party is changing its abortion platform, Warren replies, “Window dressing. Too little, too late.” And when asked about the opposite claim by the Rev. Jim Wallis, Warren is admirably honest and dismissive. “Jim Wallis is a spokesman for the Democratic party,” according to Warren. “His book reads like the party platform.”

Warren has a sophisticated view of the role churches can play in shaping our culture and, while not himself reflexively hostile to government–he praises the Bush administration for its global AIDS initiative, for example–he understands that the Church can shape attitudes and serve the poor and dispossessed in ways the government often cannot. After having attended a recent gathering at the Aspen Institute, for example, Warren commented that many secular liberals there thought “the answer to everything was a government program.”

Warren begs to differ, and the remarkable work of Saddleback Church is the best evidence he can amass to prove his case.

The last quarter-century have shown us that striking the right balance when it comes to Christians being responsibly involved in public affairs without being consumed by them is not always an easy task. Even Billy Graham slipped up for a time, having gotten too close to Richard Nixon in the early 1970s, causing those closest to him to fear he was injuring his ministry.

A passionate commitment to issues has sometimes led Christians in the public square to demonize those with whom they disagree, which has badly harmed their witness. And of course the allure and temptations of power can corrupt even those with good intentions. It doesn't help when Christians who weigh in on matters of policy are often uninformed, misinformed, or say silly and even malicious things.

Rick Warren, along with Tim Keller and some others, are helping evangelical Christians to be associated again with intellectual and moral seriousness and fidelity to their faith. That is very good for Christianity, and very good for America.

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