Rick Warren: The Purpose-Driven Pastor Evangelical pastor Rick Warren has long been portrayed as a "new" kind of evangelical — one who is as concerned about issues like poverty and AIDS as abortion and homosexuality. With a level of influence unparalleled since Billy Graham, he was a controversial choice to deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration.

Rick Warren: The Purpose-Driven Pastor

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This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. He's been billed as the next Billy Graham and a new kind of evangelical. He is Rick Warren, and he's delivering the opening prayer at Barack Obama's inauguration. But an outcry over his views on gay marriage has revealed the two sides of Warren's Christian outlook. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has this profile.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: In 1980, fresh out of seminary, Rick Warren and his wife Kay moved to Mission Viejo, California, to start a church. Warren had no money, no building, no congregation. But his brother-in-law Tom Holladay says he did have a plan: to build a church for people who never went to church.

M: So he knocked on the doors of just hundreds of people. And he asked them a lot of questions about what advice they would give to a new pastor in the area. And he also asked them all, why don't you go to church?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: They told him church was too formal, it was irrelevant, or always begging for money. So based on that survey, he shaped Saddleback Church to meet their needs. David Domke, author of "The God Strategy," says Warren targeted the young, upwardly mobile, busy baby-boomer.

P: He sold it like you sold vacuum cleaners back in the 1940s. You go out and you build a clientele and you build a relationship, and then you invite these people to come and maybe check out the product.

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

P: How to raise a child, how to deal with a divorce, how to deal with personal issues, alcoholism, workaholism, whatever - all the kinds of problems that are just part of the human experience.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: 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 bestseller among churchgoers, but few others had heard of it. Three years later, he and his book landed in the media spotlight.


M: An all-new Oprah. You saw the headlines. Seven hours of terror. A single mom...

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Ashley Smith, an Atlanta woman, was taken hostage by a spree killer. During the ordeal, Smith read to her captor from "A Purpose Driven Life." A few hours later, the killer peacefully surrendered. And a few months after that, Smith and the pastor appeared on Oprah.


M: He's here, and he wants to meet you in person.

M: No way, no way.

M: Please welcome the author of "The Purpose Driven Life," Rick Warren.


BRADLEY HAGERTY: Warren became a household name, and his book became the biggest blockbuster in American publishing history. The book's success prompted him to do some soul-searching. Warren told religion reporters that the American evangelicalism he had pioneered catered to the needs of the rich while ignoring the poor.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: And I had to repent. I had to say, God, I'm sorry. I can't think of the last time I thought about widows and orphans.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: He 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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: My goal is to move the American church from self-centeredness to unselfishness.

P: I talk about Warren as what I call kind of evangelical 2.0.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: David Domke says Warren 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. He asked Warren to read a galley proof of his 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 Senators Obama and John McCain to a televised forum on faith and world view.


BRADLEY HAGERTY: I have to tell you up front, both these guys are my friends.

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


BRADLEY HAGERTY: At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?

P: Well, you know, I think that whether...

BRADLEY HAGERTY: As Mr. Obama stumbled through one of the worst performances of his campaign, Warren peppered him with litmus test questions. Have you ever voted to limit abortion? Would you support a constitutional marriage amendment? Do you favor stem cell research?

M: I hear from good sources that it sort of surprised the Obama campaign.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Michael Cromartie heads evangelical studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

M: They did not seem to realize 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.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Warren hasn't budged an inch on abortion, premarital sex, and homosexuality. He quietly supported California's Proposition 8, which barred gay marriage. And later he drove the point home in an interview with Steve Waldman of The Wall Street Journal and BeliefNet.


BRADLEY HAGERTY: I'm opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. 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 marriage.

M: Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?


BRADLEY HAGERTY: President-elect Obama's invitation to Warren to deliver the invocation at his inaugural set off an outcry from gay rights activists. Mr. 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. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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