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Rev. Warren Draws Praise, Protests In Atlanta

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Rev. Warren Draws Praise, Protests In Atlanta

Rev. Warren Draws Praise, Protests In Atlanta

Rev. Warren Draws Praise, Protests In Atlanta

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The Rev. Rick Warren, the conservative pastor tapped to deliver the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration, drew some opposition Monday in Atlanta, where he was the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King holiday celebration. Warren is the pastor of the 22,000-member Saddleback Church in California and author of A Purpose Driven Life.


It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Rick Warren will give the invocation at today's inauguration of Barack Obama. He's the pastor of the Saddleback Church in Southern California, a megachurch with 22,000 members. The conservative Southern Baptist preacher was also the keynote speaker at the Martin Luther King holiday celebration in Atlanta yesterday. And his presence there drew some opposition, as NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: On the way to give the inaugural prayer, Pastor Rick Warren stopped in the heart of the civil rights movement. He spoke at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King, Jr., preached. Outside, on a frosty morning, dozens of gay rights picketers gathered in the shadow of this historic place.

(Soundbite of picketers chanting)

Unidentified Picketers: Gay, straight, black, or white, we demand our civil rights.

LOHR: Both black and white protesters joined in holding signs that read, we are all the beloved community, and we still have a dream. Craig Washington, with the Black Gay Rights Coalition in Atlanta, says Warren was the wrong choice for the King celebration.

Mr. CRAIG WASHINGTON (Co-Founder, Black Gay Rights Coalition, Atlanta): He compares same-sex marriage to incest and adults having sex with children. And it's important for people to understand that when we fail to call out bigotry, then we desecrate the legacy of Dr. King and we abandon the dream.

LOHR: The controversy stems in part from Warren's support of California's Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage and from comments he made last year. During yesterday's service, which commemorated King's 80th birthday, the civil rights leader's nephew, Isaac Newton Farris, Jr., said King's dream had not been realized. But Farris said the election of Barack Obama was a giant leap forward, and he defended Warren's right to speak.

(Soundbite of Martin Luther King holiday celebration, Atlanta)

Mr. ISAAC NEWTON FARRIS, JR. (President and CEO, The King Center): And let us remember that followers of Martin Luther King, Jr., hold diverse views on topics like abortion and same-sex marriage. All of the great freedom movements in America are based on free speech. And it's appropriate that we give a fair and courteous hearing to those we may disagree with as we search for common ground to resolve the great conflicts of our times.

LOHR: Warren did get a warm reception from the overflowing crowd, except for a couple of demonstrators who were escorted out after shouting their protests. Warren was undaunted. He announced he wasn't giving the remarks he had prepared, and instead spoke extemporaneously saying King was a model for social justice and a model pastor. But Warren said everyone can pick up that mantle.

(Soundbite of Martin Luther King holiday celebration, Atlanta)

Reverend RICK WARREN (Pastor, Saddleback Church, California): You may never have the adulation, the fame that Dr. Martin Luther King had. But your life is significant, and you can make a significant difference with your life.

LOHR: Rich Warren said churchgoers need to be more faithful and selfless, and pledge to make a commitment to a life of service, just like King did.

(Soundbite of Martin Luther King holiday celebration, Atlanta)

Reverend WARREN: Martin Luther King was a mighty tool in the hand of God. He was a model for millions of us, hundreds of millions of us. But God isn't through. He isn't finished with what he wants to do. And justice is a journey. And we're getting further and further along.

LOHR: After the service, some said they didn't know much about Warren. Quinton Dodds(ph) and Sandra Link(ph) enjoyed his sermon, even though they say they don't agree with his views on gay marriage.

Ms. SANDRA LINK: We all have opinions.

Mr. QUINTON DODDS: Exactly. He's entitled to his opinion. It's just that simple.

Ms. LINK: Yeah.

Mr. DODDS: I disagreed with him, but that's his opinion. He can have that opinion.

LOHR: Millions of Americans are expected to be watching the inauguration today to witness history. And the controversial Rick Warren will be front and center once again. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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Rick Warren: The Purpose-Driven Pastor

Rick Warren: The Purpose-Driven Pastor

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More than 22,000 people attend Rick Warren's Saddleback Church each week. Warren spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 26, 2008. Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

More than 22,000 people attend Rick Warren's Saddleback Church each week. Warren spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative on Sept. 26, 2008.

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

In 1980, fresh out of seminary, Rick Warren and his wife, Kay, moved to Mission Viejo, Calif., to start a church. Warren had no money, no building, no congregation. But he did have a plan: to build a church for people who never went to church.

"He knocked on doors of hundreds of people," says his brother-in-law, Tom Holladay. "And he asked them a lot of questions about what advice they'd give to a new pastor in the area. And he also asked them, 'Why don't you go to church?'"

They told him church was too formal, it was irrelevant or was always begging for money. Based on that survey, Warren shaped Saddleback Church to meet their needs.

David Domke, author of The God Strategy and a professor at the University of Washington, says Warren targeted the young, upwardly mobile, busy baby boomer.

"He sold it like people sold vacuum cleaners in the 1940s," Domke says. "You go out, and you build a clientele, and you build a relationship, and then you invite these people to check out the product."

Warren shied away from fire and brimstone, though that's part of his Southern Baptist theology. He focused on people's "felt needs."

"How to raise a child, how to deal with a divorce, how to deal with personal issues, alcoholism, workaholism — all the kinds of problems that are part of the human experience," Domke says.

Thus was born the "seeker-sensitive church."

It worked. Today, 22,000 people attend Saddleback each week. By the 1990s, Warren had become an icon within the Christian subculture. Then, in 2002, he published A Purpose Driven Life, a sort of manual for living out God's will. The book was a best-seller among churchgoers, but few others had heard of it. Three years later, Warren and his book landed in the media spotlight.

That cultural moment was prompted by Ashley Smith, an Atlanta woman who was taken hostage by Brian Nichols, who had killed several people, including the judge overseeing his rape trial. During the ordeal, Smith read to her captor from A Purpose Driven Life, and they discussed spiritual issues. In the morning, Nichols surrendered to police peacefully. Oprah Winfrey featured the story on her program, and as Smith cried "No way!" Oprah welcomed Rick Warren onto the set.

Warren became a household name, and his book became the biggest blockbuster in American publishing history. Even though he began to "reverse tithe" — that is, to give away 90 percent of his income — he was still earning millions in royalties. More than that, he had cultural influence approaching that of the Rev. Billy Graham. But this success prompted him to do some soul searching. Warren realized that the American evangelicalism he had pioneered catered to the needs of the rich while ignoring the poor.

"I had to repent," he told a group of religion writers in 2005. "I had to say 'God, I'm sorry, I can't think of the last time I thought of widows and orphans.' "

Warren began spending much of his time in Africa, making AIDS, poverty and illiteracy his top priorities, and trying to shift evangelicals in a new direction — as he put it, "from self-centeredness to unselfishness."

Domke calls Warren "evangelical 2.0." He has kept his core conservative principles, but updated them with elements like social justice and the environment. This shift drew the attention of Barack Obama, then a newly elected senator from Illinois.

In 2006, Obama asked Warren to read a galley proof of the senator's book, The Audacity of Hope, and the two struck up a friendship.

Warren, who had largely avoided politics, became a key figure in the 2008 presidential campaign when he invited Sens. Obama and John McCain to a televised forum on faith and world view.

Obama's campaign thought Warren would stress international and social justice issues. It didn't turn out that way.

Warren's question — "At what point does a baby have human rights?" — prompted Obama's nadir moment, in which he said those decisions are "above my pay grade." As Obama stumbled through one the worst performances of his campaign, Warren peppered him with other litmus test questions: Have you ever voted to limit abortion? Would you support a constitutional marriage amendment? Do you favor stem cell research?

"I hear from good sources it sort of surprised the Obama campaign," says Michael Cromartie, who directs evangelical studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. "They did not seem to recognize that Rick Warren was a man who had broadened the evangelical agenda, but he hadn't let go of the former agenda that many evangelicals care about."

Warren hasn't budged an inch on abortion or homosexuality. He quietly supported California's Proposition 8, which barred gay marriage. Later, he drove the point home in an interview with Steve Waldman of the Wall Street Journal and

"I'm opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling it a marriage," Warren said. "I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that a marriage."

"Do you think that's equivalent to gays having marriage?" Waldman interjected.

"Oh, I do," Warren said.

President-elect Obama's invitation to Warren to deliver the invocation at his inaugural set off an outcry from gay rights activists. Obama defended Warren, saying both men believe in conversation with those who disagree with them. Likewise, many conservatives have criticized Warren for his association with the liberal Democrat.

Over the next four years, that commitment to civility shared by the new president and the purpose-driven pastor will likely be tested again and again.