Illustration by Ben FroehlichOn April 17, Rick Warren could have changed the world—saved it, maybe.
Head pastor at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest and author of the millions-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life, Warren had just announced an ambitious plan to combat the "global Goliaths" of humanity—poverty, illiteracy, lack of spirituality, corrupt political leaders and AIDS—before an Angel Stadium crowd of about 30,000. The cheers of the faithful crescendoed when Warren reavealed that Rwandan President Paul Kagame, also in attendance, committed his war-ravaged country to Saddleback's vision of transforming it into the first "purpose-driven nation."
Though Warren mentioned a "global expansion of God's kingdom" as part of that vision, he swore to Orange County Register reporter Ann Pepper afterward that what mattered most was relieving earthly, not spiritual, pain.
"The first [Reformation] was about belief. This one," Warren explained grandly, "will be about deeds" and "work[ing] with everyone who wants to help. I'll work with an atheist who wants to stop AIDS."
Warren has hit the same ecumenical note before, but always when speaking to the secular world. "You have every kind of political viewpoint" in the AIDS-in-Africa evangelical movement, he told the Washington Times in July. And this, he suggested, was a very good thing.
Keeping a nonpartisan, non-religious public face is essential to Warren's success. It has allowed the northern California native to shepherd Saddleback Church in 25 years from a house-based ministry into one so gargantuan the BBC named him "America's Pastor."
But behind the laid-back atmosphere of Saddleback Church—where pastors mix pop-culture references and Andy Griffith clips into their sermons and congregants can attend seven types of services ranging from rock & roll to gospel—is a fundamentalist worldview remarkably similar to the Republican Party's. Warren wants to send copies of his Purpose-Driven Life to every member of the military in Iraq; in a particularly martial altar call, he has promised to recruit a "billion foot soldiers" for Christ. Despite promising to remain neutral in the 2004 election, Warren sent a letter to 136,000 fellow pastors urging them to compare the positions of George W. Bush and John Kerry on five "non-negotiable" issues: abortion, stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, human cloning and euthanasia. Warren and Bush are strongly opposed to each; Kerry is not.
On Aug. 15, Warren continued to piggyback on Jesus. That day, Baptist newspapers and bulletins across the country published Warren's "6 Ways the Church Can Attack the AIDS Crisis," a letter originally published on Saddleback's website (www.saddleback.org).
First, he suggested reasonably that serving the AIDS community might help spread the Light. "I'm convinced the HIV/AIDS pandemic is the church's greatest opportunity to visibly demonstrate God's love to skeptics," Warren wrote. "It is also an incredible opportunity to grow in Christ-like character, to share the Good News with the hurting, and to extend your church's witness into your community and around the world."
Then Warren transitioned to an illiberal broadside that could've come from the office of Karl Rove.
"I believe the local church is the only organization that can eradicate [AIDS]," Warren explained. "The only way for treatment to become universal is to develop a church-based treatment model. NGOs (non-government organizations) come and go, but churches are permanent community fixtures."
Warren outlined his strategy with the acrostic C.H.U.R.C.H. (care for the sick; help, test and counsel; unleash volunteers; remove the stigma; champion healthy behavior; hand out medicine and nutrition). But the devil is in the spiritual details. Warren plans to give Africans "spiritual support which neither business nor government can offer" and "the moral motivation for abstinence and faithfulness. To resist peer pressure and relapse, faithfulness requires faith."
Not included in that plan, apparently: condoms.
The happy talk of laboring alongside infidels is, in the end then, just talk. Warren's co-hosts for "Disturbing Voices: An International HIV/AIDS Conference," a Nov. 29 symposium at Saddleback Church, are Bill and Lynne Hybels. The Hybels' Willow Creek Community Church is one of the largest congregations in the country, and its anti-gay "A Safe Place" ministry has a kind of one-step "recovery" plan for gays and lesbians: just don't do it. "Homosexuality is not God's design for relationship[s]," the Hybels say.
Among the more disconcerting voices scheduled to speak at Disturbing Voices is Martin Ssempa, a Ugandan minister who has earned the praise of the Bush administration for his anti-AIDS efforts. Ssempa is a controversial figure in the global AIDS movement. He has held public condom burnings and claimed that such well-respected organizations as the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Agency for International Development promote "promiscuity." He has also tried to pin on gays and lesbians the late-19th-century massacre of East African Christians by Mwanga, a reputedly bisexual emperor of what's now Uganda. That slaughter, Ssempa wrote in a June essay, was one that "the entire gay community should remorsefully reflect [upon], not unlike Hitler's murders of the Jews."
As hard as Warren works to make his AIDS campaign seem secular, tolerant, even scientific, it's easy to spot the evangelical in the woodpile. On a Saddleback Church website, Warren's wife, Kay, cites the studies of Edward Green, a Harvard medical anthropologist, to support her claim that condoms don't work: "Monogamy, partner reduction and abstinence were stronger factors for prevention in Uganda than the use of condoms."
That would be a powerful claim—if it were true.
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Green, a member of Bush's Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS, does indeed advocate abstinence and single-partner relationships as effective in combating AIDS. But he doesn't blow off condoms. "It is reasonably well-established that consistent condom use protects against HIV transmission," he wrote in his 2002 paper, "The Impact of Religious Organizations in Promoting HIV/AIDS Prevention." He flatly concludes that "condom use should be promoted."
So the science says condoms are good. Perhaps, then, it's Warren's pretense—that he's a man without a partisan impulse—that is a Trojan horse. Of a different color. And it's ribbed.
A portion of this article originally appeared in "A Clockwork Orange."