Politics & Policy

Rick Warren’s Shadow SOTU

An Evangelical pastor keeps religious liberty on the agenda.

‘I’m not interested in politics,” Rick Warren announced to a small press gathering. While such a statement from a religious leader is not all that unusual, it was quite countercultural in Washington, D.C., on the day of the president’s State of the Union address.

Warren, the Evangelical author of The Purpose-Driven Life, which has sold more than 30 million copies and been translated into more than 50 languages, leads southern California’s Saddleback Church, where he once hosted a presidential forum between John McCain and Barack Obama, back in the day. Warren is not shy about sharing that he has spent the better part of the past few decades focusing on work abroad. Saddleback’s evangelization and service mission goes out to all the nations. But on this particular day Warren was focusing on an issue here at home, an issue he has been speaking out about this past year. He was challenging the leaders in our nation’s capital to do a little soul-searching about the nation’s stewardship of the gift of religious liberty.

#ad#“Freedom is fragile. It never, ever, ever lasts unless we protect it, preserve it, defend it,” Warren said, sitting in Georgetown University’s Gaston Hall, where the president of the United States once spoke on economics, his advance men having requested that the school remove the name of Jesus, with the Jesuit school inexplicably complying. Perhaps that’s where the Obama administration concluded that it could succeed in assaulting the moral consciences of Catholics, and others, in its push for comprehensive health care. But “healthcare for all should not mean freedom for few,” as New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan puts it.

“Can we really talk about the state of our union without talking about the state of our religious freedom?” asked Timothy Shah, associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs, on the day of the president’s speech before Congress. Not unsurprisingly, in the president’s speech the issue was never raised. Shah’s question was honest and alarming. It underscored the reason that Warren, who led the United States in prayer at President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, joined the many critics who insist that the White House has no authority to narrow religious liberty in America.

The “first freedom,” Warren says, “is the freedom to practice my faith and values and not just to believe it.” He adds that “it’s also the freedom to convert,” though “it isn’t faith if it’s forced.” Speaking in easily tweetable phrases about a topic that has been hard pressed to get an honest hearing in the public square in the past year, he added: “I believe in conversion, not coercion. I believe in pluralism, not relativism.” On that last point, a day after Pope Benedict XVI announced the surprising news that he was “resigning,” Warren could be heard quoting the man on the dangers of a “dictatorship of relativism.” He cautioned against a misreading of tolerance that mistakenly assumes all ideas to be of equal value, that dismisses the existence of truth. “Religious liberty is not given by the state,” he observes. “It is given by God. Some people are so afraid of coercion, they oppose persuasion.” Clearly not this preacher man.

Warren’s trip to Washington came shortly after the White House issued new guidance about how it might be willing to “accommodate” religious objectors to its coercive Department of Health and Human Services mandate. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has found it insufficient, and Warren stands with the bishops — and others, including Evangelicals, who have taken their cases to court or otherwise remain steadfastly opposed to the regulation.

Warren explains that, while churches are exempt from the mandate, Saddleback has a free clinic and a school. The church does not have to pay for abortion-inducing drugs for the employees of the clinic and the school, but their insurer does — and Saddleback self-insures, a situation most Christian organizations find themselves in. And so what the administration proposes is nothing but “a shell game,” he argues. “I still am responsible to pay for something I have a fundamental disagreement with, an abortion pill.”

“I don’t think it’s the end of it,” Warren says with confidence, in what is clearly a continuing campaign for him. He predicts that when the HHS mandate gets to the Supreme Court, “it will be struck down 9–0,” pointing to the Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC ruling for religious liberty. In that case, two of Barack Obama’s own appointees, including his former solicitor general, joined in a unanimous religious-liberty ruling against the administration.

At a small press gathering, Warren was asked why he was digressing from his mission abroad, where he is fighting poverty, disease, and human trafficking and working to make sure kids have clean water. Why is he setting all that aside to quibble with the Obama administration about an issue widely perceived to be about access to contraception? Warren was firm, contending that there are enough of us to fight all the various forms of injustice. He stands “100 percent” with his Catholic brothers and sisters. Under the current rule, he said, “You have to change your beliefs or pay a fine.” He cautioned against “minimizing” the issue.

“The changes to the mandate aren’t enough,” Warren argues. “I think they’re window dressing.”

He continued: “We’re not going to agree on values in America. Because we don’t. We have different values. But can we all agree on freedom? Can freedom be a unifying factor? History proves that freedom is incredibly fragile and it never, ever, ever lasts unless it is nourished and protected and it is defended.” He says we can lose it out of neglect, surrender it out of fear, or “license it away.” “It is the duty . . . of every generation to re-preserve the freedom.”

Warren is encouraged by a recent Barna poll that finds most Americans concerned about restrictions on freedom in the U.S. “And that’s with almost no media coverage” of the problem, he pointed out. He announced that he would launch a daily national radio program and host a summit on religious freedom.

For those who watched the official State of the Union later in the day, that inaugural prayer Warren offered at President Obama’s first inauguration would have been an appropriate soundtrack: “As we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.” And may we have not one of them without the others, we pray.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA.

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