Rick Warren Talks about AIDS, Celebrity Status, Elections

Rick Warren Talks about AIDS, Celebrity Status, Elections

LAKE FOREST, CALIFORNIA -- Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Valley Church in Lake Forest, California, and author of "The Purpose Driven Life," appeared on a Christmas Eve edition of NBC's Meet the Press to answer questions about the role of faith in the 2008 US presidential election, his increasing celebrity status, and his high visibility in the battle against HIV/AIDS.

Moderator Tim Russert wanted to know why, of all the countries in the world, America is one of the most religious?

Warren replied: "The history of America is faith-friendly, it’s pragmatic and it’s pluralistic. And all three of these are true. And when Jefferson wrote that famous phrase, “separation of church and state,” he was basically saying, don’t tax me to hire Anglican priests. That’s all he meant by it. He didn’t mean anything more than let’s separate these two different worlds. Madison once said, “If you have one religion then you’ve got tyranny in a country.” He said, “If you have two religions, you’ve got civil conflict. If you’ve got many religions, you’ve got civil peace.” And I believe that the reason why faith has thrived in America is because we have a free market economy for religion, not just for economies, that may the best idea win. I am totally opposed to theocracy, totally opposed to state church. Look at what it did to Europe. Christianity was killed when the government got involved in Europe.

"The other thing that I’d point out is in the last eight elections, America tends to vote for born-again presidents, regardless of their political persuasion. You can go all the way back to Carter, OK? Reagan, Bush one, who didn’t talk about it much, but was a devout believer, Clinton and Bush two. Regardless of whether they are Democrat or Republican, right-wing, left-wing, they—America tends to like leaders who have a faith."

Before Russert played an audiotape of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the eve of D-Day (June 6, 1944), he commented: "I want to take you back to June of 1944 to give you a sense of how much religion, faith, played in our politics on D-Day. Here’s the president of the United States saying very openly a prayer. Let’s listen."

On the tape, Roosevelt is heard saying: "And so, in this poignant hour, I ask you to join with me in prayer: Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity...With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy.. .Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen."

Warren responded: "Well, in that same war, of course, Churchill and Roosevelt sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” on a battleship, where they played and met. So, yeah, things have changed, there’s no doubt about that. People don’t really realize how—that even under the basis of so much of what’s happened over history, there has been a spiritual basis. A couple of years ago, Tim, I was at the Aspen Institute speaking, and the great historian, Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, got up, and he made this statement that George Bush, our current president, was the most religious president in history. And I was up next and I said, “Well, I admire Dr. Schlesinger, but I have to disagree. The most religious president of history was Lincoln.” You go and read his second inaugural address, it’s a sermon, it’s just flat—no—Bush or Clinton could have never gotten away with what, what Lincoln said at the second inauguration. It was just a flat out Christian sermon."

Russert asked Warren: "Do you believe we, too often as Americans, invoke the notion that God is on our side?"

"Oh, without a doubt. And, I tell people all the time, I’m not called to save America, I’m called to save Americans. Jesus didn’t die for a country, he died for individuals. But, you know, I debated some leaders in China about this just a few years ago. We actually had a dinner in People’s Hall, and some of the Cabinet members had invited me to this dinner, and as we talked, I (told them) you know the problem with China is you want to have the economic freedom of the West without the moral underpinnings of it. And I said, it isn’t going to happen, because there are three freedoms you have to have to have the success of the West. Number one is freedom of religion. It’s the First Amendment, OK, and the freedom of religion. The second is the freedom of information and freedom of speech. And the third is freedom of markets. And what you’re trying to do is put freedom of markets into China without freedom of religion and freedom of information, and it isn’t going to work, because capitalism without either Judaism or Christianity or moral basis is pure greed. It is the moral basis beneath it that says, “Oh, I need to take care of my employees. I don’t just become a robber baron.” And when you take capitalism, as for instance, and put it into Russia without the moral basis, you get oligarchies. You get a bunch of thugs who rip off the country as much as the communists did.

Rick Warren thanked Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek, who also appeared on Meet the Press, for putting faith on the front cover of his magazine, "because I think Newsweek has done a really good job of this. Most of the major questions of the 21st century have a faith component, have a religious component to it. Will Islam modernize peacefully? What’s going to replace the, the, the vacuum in China now that Marxism is dead? Will America return to some of its roots historically? So you’ve done a good job on that by putting a lot of faith issues in the magazine.

"But I do think that evangelicals as a whole, we’re trying to broaden the agenda. There’s no doubt about that. The way I tell it to my people is the church is the body of Christ, and for the last 50 years, the hands and the feet have been amputated. And all we’ve been is a big mouth. And most of the time, we’re known for what we’re against. And frankly, I’m tired of that. I think the church should be known for what it’s for, not what it’s against.

"You know, about 100 years ago, the first part of the 20th century, Protestantism, Catholicism never had this split, but Protestantism split into two wings. There was the liberal and conservative wing or, probably the main line, and the evangelical or the fundamentalists in the early days. And what that was all about is there was a group of Protestant theologians who came out and said, you know, “We really don’t need to worry about personal salvation anymore, this thing about Jesus on the cross and atonement and stuff like that. What we need to do is just redeem the social structures of society. And if we do that, then the world will be a better place and everything will be great.” And frankly, in many ways, it was just Marxism in Christian format, which basically said, “We’ll be better if you just give them a good world.” And the magazine The Christian Century started off with this view. And now you look back 100 years later, and I think they might be embarrassed at that name, because I sure wouldn’t want to claim the 20th century as the Christian century after two world wars and genocide and, you know the Holocaust and things like that.

"But that was the attitude at the beginning of the 20th century is that, “We’re going to bring in the kingdom, and, and Christians will just make society better and better and it’ll become a Christian society by, primarily, politics.” And so what happened is the Protestants split and the liberals took the body and the evangelicals took the soul. And the liberal said, “We’ll focus on rights, racial equality and injustice and, and, you know, equality in society and economic issues and things like that,” and the fundamentalists, and then the evangelicals said, “We’re going to focus on personal salvation, personal morality, and, and family.”

Russert then asked Warren about the 'big five giants' Warren is dedicated to bringing down. "Let’s look at them. The first is a spiritual emptiness. Second, egocentric leadership. Third, extreme poverty. Four, pandemic disease. And five, illiteracy and poor education."

Warren responded: "These problems are so big, Tim, that everybody’s failed at them. The United Nations has failed, the United States has failed. And the reason why is because we have not worked together on these issues. Last year at Davos I kept hearing people talk about public and private partnerships. And what they meant was, we need government and businesses to work together on these big global problems. These are problems that affect billions of people, not millions. And when they said that, I said, “Well, you’re right, but you’re not quite there yet. You’re missing the third leg of the stool.” A one-legged stool will fall over, a two-legged stool will fall over, and business and government alone cannot solve these problems. They haven’t, or they would’ve. The third leg of the stool is the churches. There’s a public sector role, there’s a private sector role and there’s a faith sector role.

"Each of the three legs have something to bring to the table that the other doesn’t have. Government brings three things to the table on these issues. First, they bring safety and security. That’s the primary job of the government and that is, keep me safe from terrorism or from war so that I can live in peace. Second role of government is to provide freedom so I can prosper. I can go out and I can start a business if I want to and give me freedom. And the third is, set laws and enforce them because somebody’s got to put up stop signs so we’re not in chaos. The church can’t do that and business can’t do it. There’s a legitimate role for government to do these things.

"Now, when we talk about poverty, disease, illiteracy and things like that, businesses have a role that government can’t play. Business brings to the table expertise in technology, in health and all kinds of things. They bring capital to the table. Enormous investments. And then they bring, this one’s really important, management skills, because most governments, most businesses and most churches are poorly managed. But if we’re going to solve issues like poverty, disease, illiteracy, corruption, trafficking, all these other things, the church has to be invited to the table for three reasons.

"First, we have universal distribution. I could take you to 10 million villages around the world that the only thing they’ve got in it’s a church. In fact, in most of the world, the only civil service society is a church. They don’t have a clinic, they don’t have a school, they don’t have a post office, they don’t have a bar. They’ve got a church. Millions and millions of (people)—the church was global 200 years before anybody started talking about globalization. In fact, it’s the only global, truly global organization. There are 2.3 billion people who claim to be followers of Christ. Now that means the church is bigger than China. It’s bigger than India and China put together. So, universal distribution. Second thing it’s got is it’s got the greatest pool of manpower. One out of every three people on the planet claims to be a follower of Christ. If you mobilize just a billion of those people for these issues, you’d solve it pretty quickly. The third thing is, local credibility. What I mean by that is on these issues like poverty, disease, illiteracy, you just can’t go into a village with a program and expect them to accept it. And you have to have credibility. Well, that priest, that pastor, that minister, or for that matter, in the Muslim world, the imam or a rabbi, they have credibility because they’re marrying, they’re burying, they’re with the people in the stages of life. And frankly, I trust them to know more about their community than any government or NGO would ever know.

"Most of the world is non-Christian, two thirds is not, but most of the world has faith of some kind. For instance, there are 600,000 Buddhists in the world, there are 800,000 Hindus, there are 1.3 billion Muslims and 2.3 billion Christians. The actual number of true secularists is actually quite small outside of Manhattan or Europe. So most people have a faith. Now, if you say you have to put your faith on the shelf to do humanitarian aid, you’ve ruled out most of the world. And, and so what I’m saying is, I honestly don’t care what your motivation is to do good, as long as you do good. You might have a political motivation. Somebody comes and says to you, “It makes good sense—it’s good foreign policy for us to help people get well, like with AIDS.” I’ve noticed they tend to like your country when you help them out. It’s just flat out good foreign policy to do health care, OK? That’s not my motivation, but it’s fine. Then there might be a political—a profit motivation, make money and help people. I wish more businesses did it.

"Because the truth of the 20th century is more people were killed in the 20th century by atheist governments than all Christian ideas throughout history combined. When you look at the godless communism, and, and Nazism—which in itself was, was we’re the ruler—tens and tens of millions, maybe a hundred million people were killed in the 20th century by atheists, not by believers. So yes, you can go back to the Crusades, and they were wrong. They were flat out wrong. But let’s take the most recent history. Atheists were what caused the most people—Stalin was an atheist, Mao was an atheist, Hitler was an atheist. He was an occultist, actually. And, and so let’s just make sure that history is told.

Russert then turned the focus of the discussion back to domestic concerns, "because it is quite interesting watching you and your wife Kay involved in the AIDS movement. Strong evangelical Christians who nonetheless—this is what your wife, Kay Warren, said: “There are consequences that can happen when you’re sinful, but it’s not a sin to be sick.”

Russert commented: "Embracing those with AIDS, even though she has strong feelings about homosexuality, you created quite a controversy last month when you invited not only Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas to your church, but Barack Obama, the senator from Illinois who’s thinking of running for president, as a Democrat. This is the Christian News Wire, when Phyllis Schlafly and some other Christian leaders wrote to you, saying this: “We oppose Rick Warren’s decision to ignore Senator Obama’s clear, pro-death stance and invite him to Saddleback Church. If Senator Obama cannot defend the most helpless citizens in our country,” speaking about abortion, “he has nothing to say to the AIDS crisis. You cannot fight one evil while justifying another. The evangelical church can provide no genuine help for those who suffer from AIDS if those involved do not first have their ethic of life firmly rooted in the Word of God.”

"I want to bring you to what happened at your church. Sam Brownback first said something—Barack Obama was there—you did not rescind his invitation—and responded. "

Russert then played a videotape of World AIDS Day and the meeting Warren hosted with Senator Brownback and Senator Obama, where both called Warren's church "my house."

"A liberal and a conservative, both saying God’s house is my house," Russert pointed out.

Warren responded: "Yeah. I called it the face of compassionate conservatism and the face of compassionate liberalism. And what they had in common, was compassion, which is the Jesus part. For pro-lifers to attack me is ludicrous. If you’ve read “Purpose Driven Life,” chapter two and chapter 22 specifically says that God had a purpose for your life before you were born, and that abortion actually short-circuit’s God’s purpose for your life. So there are accidental parents, but there are no accidental children. You may not have planned your kid, but God did. So everybody knows where I stand on that.

"But there it goes back to the stability issue that I deeply believe is missing in our world. And that is, you don’t have to agree with everything a person believes in order to work with them. And we need leaders who work for the common good, not a single-issue people. I feel deeply about pro-life, very deeply about it. I’m a staunch pro-lifer. But I will work with anyone on anything if we can work together. If you can only work with people you agree with on everything, you’ve ruled out the entire world. Because nobody agrees with you on everything. I can’t even get my wife to agree with me on everything.

"So, for instance, Francis Schaeffer talked about the difference between being an ally and a co-belligerent. For instance, I’m a co-belligerent with the feminist movement on a number of issues. When feminist movement say, “We’re opposed to pornography because it objectifies women,” I’m saying, “I’m in your camp on that.” Now, I don’t agree with most of the feminist agenda, but I happen to agree with that, so I’m a co-belligerent with them on that. I don’t agree with everything my gay friends agree with, and they don’t agree with everything I, I believe in, but if they want to work on AIDS, we’ll work with them. We’ll work with anybody. That’s this civility of, to quote that great theologian Rodney King, “Can’t we just get along?” And have—look at what’s the common good.

"And I really think in the next election, people are looking for that kind of leader, and both Sam and Barack are men of civility."

Russert pointed out that, "As we speak on this Christmas Eve morning, tonight, many Americans will be surrounded by an abundance of gifts. I was quite taken by something that you said, Pastor Warren, and I’ll put it on the screen. “I don’t think it’s a sin to be rich. I think it’s a sin to die rich.”

"Explain that," Russert prompted

"Well, in my own personal life, when “The Purpose Driven Life” came out and it became the best-selling book for a long, long time in the world...Now 30 million copies, and it’s in 56 languages. Well, that brought in enormous amounts of money. And it also brought in a lot of attention. And I had to pray about what I call the stewardship of affluence and the stewardship of influence. And I began to go to Scripture, and I found a verse in the New Testament on what to do with the money, and a verse in the Old Testament on what to do with the fame. And in 1 Corinthians 9, the Apostle Paul says, “Those who teach the gospel should make a living by the gospel.” In other words, “It’s OK to pay your priest or your pastor.” That’s a legitimate offer to society. But, Paul says, “I will not accept that right, because I want the freedom to serve God and be a slave to no man.” And I thought, “I want to do this.” And when, literally, when all this money started pouring in, Kay and I make five decisions on what to do with the money.

"First, we said, we’re not going to spend it on ourselves. I still live in the same house I’ve lived in 15 years, I drive a six-year-old Ford truck. I don’t own a boat, I don’t own a second house. I don’t own a plane. We just said we’re not going to—I’m not going to spend it on that. A second was I stopped taking a salary from Saddleback Church about four years ago. Third is, I added up all that the church had paid me in 24 years at that time and I gave it all back. And I did that because I knew that I was being put under the spotlight and I didn’t want anybody to question my motives of why I do what I do. And sure enough, the very next week I was interviewed by Time, that other magazine. Have you ever heard of it?

"And the first question the author—the editor—the reporter asked was, “What’s your salary?” Which I thought, OK, here’s another fat cat megachurch pastor fleecing the flock. And I said, “Well, honestly, I’ve now served my church for free for 25 years.” Her face went white and I thought, it was worth every penny just to say that. You know, I had to repent of my pride, but I really felt good for about a minute. You know, and then I got real humble again. But I did that. Then we set up some charities, one’s called Acts of Mercy, which helps those with AIDS. And another on training leaders and another on this Global Peace Plan.

Russert wanted to know what the New Testament tells Warren about celebrity status?


"The last thing I did is we became reverse tithers. When my wife and I got married 31 years ago, we started giving 10 percent of our income as a tithe to our church. And each year we would raise it at least 1 percent. Now, we never told anybody for over 30 years. We’ve been married 31 years and, and the first year of marriage we raised it to 11 percent. Second year to 12. Well, we’ve now been married 31 years, we give away 90 percent and we live on 10. And honestly, that’s quite fun. The joy of giving at Christmastime—I really do believe in the joy of giving. I’m probably the happiest person on the planet because we get to use money in so many great ways. You can’t outgive God.

"On the stewardship of affluence, I was reading Psalms 72 and it’s an interesting prayer, it’s Solomon’s prayer for more influence. When you read this prayer, it sounds like the most egotistical prayer because he says, “God, I want you to make me famous.” He says, “I want you to spread the fame of my name to many countries. I want you to give me power, give me blessing and make we well-known.” And it sounds pretty selfish till you read the motivation and he says, “So that king may support the widow and orphan, defend the defenseless, care for the sick, assist the poor, speak up for the oppressed, the immigrant, the foreigner,” things like that. The purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence, and that changed my life. I had to repent and said I will spend the rest of my life using whatever influence I’ve got for those who have little influence."


This article is based upon a transcript of NBC's Meet the Press television program. The transcript has been edited for use by this news service. Every effort has been made to maintain the accuracy of the original interview.


Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is a Special Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Lake Forest, California. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in September, 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station.

© 2006 ASSIST News Service, used with permission