According toTeam America: World Police, everyone has AIDS. My father (AIDS!). My sister (AIDS!). The gays and the straights and the whites and the spades.
Actually, in my family, everyone has Hep C. (It must have been all those prison stints.) But we have AIDS too, or we did; my son's first mom (my stepmother) died of it when he was a baby.
So did I go to Friday's Global Summit on AIDS at Saddleback Church in some kind of activist solidarity? Because this time, it's personal? No, not really. Eleven years later, I don't think about Leslie that often—except sometimes to mumble an apology to her when I've been particularly menstrual and rotten to her sweet son, and to promise her I really am taking good care of him, mostly.
Really, I just went to see Senator Barack Obama address Rick Warren's megachurch, and to find out how the holy rollers would welcome him.
Quite well, as it turned out. If nothing else, they're a very welcoming lot.
All those e-mails I got from the Worldview Weekend nutso types promising hellfire for Obama's positions on abortion and gay marriage (he's actually, and very uncoolly, against gay marriage, but not according to the good reverends—and Phyllis Schlafly—at Worldview)? Well, they managed to find two sad people willing to protest the gathering, down miles of winding driveway where the Saddleback “campus” meets the street. “Stop AIDS,” read their signs. “Stop sin.” I stopped myself from flipping them off, and just glared at them instead. I hope Miss Manners realizes how much I do for her.
* * *
Rick Warren, who started Saddleback with his wife, Kay, 26 years ago, was getting ready to testify when I arrived. White people were clapping choppily to a kind of actually rocking band. For serious! My lip was twitching. Do. Not. Laugh!
I was greeted by multiple greeters—right on its website, Saddleback promises you will always be greeted, and that's one promise they kept. But it's nice, being smiled at and given a good morning; it's like Wal-Mart, except people are there because they want to be, not forced to work—at Wal-Mart—despite their arthritis and general anciency.
Also unlike Wal-Mart, the space (chapel? Meeting hall? Coven?) is modern and airy, with exposed white pipes and easily a hundred grand in stage lights.
Warren talked a long time—he's a talker, that Rick Warren—and he looked like an older version of my brother-in-law, with his goatee and jeans and general puffiness. But Rick Warren is an interesting guy. He may look like your typical white OC kind of . . . you know . . . asshole. But he was talking about how he never realized AIDS was a problem until Kay made him look at the situation in Africa, where 12 million orphans wander the streets, their parents dead of AIDS.
“That,” he said, “is a continent sliding into the sea.”
So what else had he missed? He made a list of the world's most pressing problems, the ones governments couldn't or wouldn't fix. Why couldn't he, Rick Warren, focus the energies of his 12,000 parishioners (are they called parishioners?) to fight spiritual emptiness, “egocentric leadership” (or corruption—”There are little Saddams in every country, in every community, in every church and in every homeowners association,” he said. “Give a man a little power, he turns into Stalin.”), poverty, pandemic diseases and illiteracy?
“My goal,” he said, “is to turn the American church from selfish consumerism to selfless contribution. I want to see a woman, who was once only interested in her diamond tennis bracelet, sitting under a banyan tree, holding a baby with AIDS.”
Hey, why not?
And when did Rick Warren start sounding like Fidel Castro?
* * *
There is a religious Left in our country. (We love you, Catholic Worker.) Rick Warren isn't among them. But I like it when the religious Right starts actually talking about the things Jesus talked about—feeding the poor and healing the sick—and there's been precious little of it since Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority took control of the airwaves and the agenda back in the '80s.
What did Jesus say about abortion and gays? Not a goddamn syllable. He did have a few thoughts on Mammon, however.
That's why it was terribly interesting to see Kansas Senator Sam Brownback take to Warren's pulpit.
The little I knew of Brownback was from reading Thomas Frank's marvelous What's the Matter With Kansas? (Answer: a lot!) I knew he had converted to Opus Dei-style Catholicism and made his bones on such issues as Third World sex slavery and, of course, abortion. (He had originally gotten involved in Kansas politics, however, as a pro-choice moderate.) I also knew that in his original post as Kansas ag secretary—not elected or appointed by the governor, but actually chosen by the heads of the agriculture industry!—he had made limits on dangerous herbicides “voluntary,” and he never found a thorny issue, either there or in the House, that couldn't be fixed with deregulation. Unless, of course, that issue took place on your queen-size bed.
So who would have ever, ever thought that Sam Brownback is charming and hilarious?
Boyish at 50, he started out with love words for Obama—the topic for this session was “We Must Work Together”—and a story of having to precede him at a meeting of the NAACP. “They were very polite, and couldn't have been kinder, but when Barack followed, it was like, 'Oh, Elvis is here.' This time I'm more comfortable,” he continued. “Welcome to my house.” (Obama would later ding him for that, in what seemed to be the only deviation from his prepared remarks. “One thing I got to say, though, Sam: this is my house too. This is God's house.” Cue fucking giant applause.)
And Brownback recited the 100th Psalm, and got choked up saying it. And he talked about Uganda, and AIDS, and genocide. “If we will just give them the crumbs off our table,” he said, and then repeated it, “they will live, and we will save our souls.” He talked about Lazarus and the rich man, and said, “I think this is our country today.” That's right: our country will burn because we turn our backs on those in need.
* * *
The gaybashing hasn't been working so much lately, and abortion seems to have lost some of its electoral zing. Maybe that's why leaders in the evangelical movement are in the middle of a battle for the soul of their church. Joel C. Hunter resigned as head of the Christian Coalition two weeks ago before he had even taken the post; he had wanted the Coalition to focus on poverty and global warming (the evangelicals call this—and I got no problem with it—”creation care”). Ted Haggard, before the Recent Unpleasantness, had as head of the National Association of Evangelicals focused on the same. Maybe that's why Dobson doesn't have time to cure him of The Gay.
Even Sam Brownback is talking the talk, and that's all to the good.
* * *
As for Obama, well, it was good to see him, and it was great to hear someone say the word condoms from the Saddleback pulpit. (“Fidelity is the ideal,” he said, “but we are dealing with flesh-and-blood men and women, not abstractions.” His call for condoms instead of expecting abstinence didn't draw huge applause, but it drew enough to impress me.)
But let's take another lesson from the Book: When Rick Warren and Sam Brownback, my prodigal sons, return to me and talk of poverty and AIDS (and separation of Church and State!) I throw them a party despite all the rest of them.
But when my dutiful son Obama says, “It has been too easy for some to point to the unfaithful husband, or the promiscuous youth or the gay man and say, 'This is your fault. You have sinned.' [But] my faith reminds me that we are all sinners” (my emphasis), well, I don't seem to give him credit for his miles more of good than Brownback and Warren. Instead I just kind of want to smack him in the mouth for even letting that kind of statement stand. There's just no pleasing some people (me). Fuck you, Obama.