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His Beefiness Rick Warren with Thing 1 and Thing 2

The Warren Court
McCain, Obama and the Grand Inquisitor

Did you happen to catch the John McCain-Barack Obama lickfest at Rick Warren’s Saddlebrook Church Saturday? The two candidates pandered to the Christian audience as if Nov. 4 was Judgment Day, McCain declaring every woman that’s had a miscarriage or an abortion to be a murderer (human rights beginning at conception, is how he sees it), Obama degrading gays to second-class citizenship with his marriage-is-defined-as-a-man-and-a-woman formulation, and both maudlinizing the air with contortionist revelations designed to make them seem human, vulnerable, flawed but mendable: McCain waxing regretfully about his failed first marriage (really? Would you trade your current trophy for a re-do?), Obama manufacturing remorse over his youthful drug and alcohol use, and through it all Warren sitting there, his prodigious beefiness filling in for his highness, high-fiving himself at having turned “national inquisitor” (as Time aptly describes him in a recent profile) and made “faith,” that exceptionally American disease corrupting our political and cultural vitality, once again a poisoned pivot of the presidential campaign. Who is this Rick Warren, anyway?

 

Rick Warren is the supreme co-opter. Richard Dawkins famously compared religion to a virus of the mind that propagates the way computer viruses do (“Like computer viruses, successful mind viruses will tend to be hard for their victims to detect. If you are the victim of one, the chances are that you won't know it, and may even vigorously deny it.”) Warren is not the virus so much as the master mutant. He’s discovered that the old model of politician-pastor à la Fallwell-Robertson-Dobson has run its course, that it’s being shown up for what it is—a mixture of regression and exclusion in the name of some ideological purity that happens to take god’s word for its little red book.

Warren doesn’t think any differently at all. He pretends to. But he doesn’t. He’s as anti-gay, anti-stem-cell research, anti-abortion, anti-tax and anti-government as the rest of them. He happens to be more clever at it. He’s co-opted more liberal causes to make the dogmatic pill of evangelism go down easier. He wants to battle poverty (what church hasn’t pretended to want to battle poverty?). He wants the church to be more ecologically responsible. Cheap words. Who doesn’t anymore? He wants to oppose global warming. And get this: he wants to oppose torture. Is that the new standard of a more progressive church? A church that considers opposition to torture a new virtue? A step forward? Opposing torture is like saying you oppose child rapists (wait; bad example, considering that it’s the church we’re talking about) or murderers. You don’t need a pat on the back for that. You deserve contempt if you consider it anything less than a self-evident no-brainer. But by making it a bullet point on his agenda for broadness, Warren turns it into some kind of virtue. That gives you an idea of how self-serving the guy can be. Same with AIDS, his other allegedly unique campaign.

Then there’s this.

“I don’t have much faith in government solutions, given the track record,” he tells Time. “It’s why I’m a pastor.” Really? Because churches have a better track record? Name me a single contemporary accomplishment where the church has been either more trustworthy or more effective at tackling societal problems. What church—what sprawling, concrete-and-steel-worshipping megachurch like Warren's assault on Orange County especially—has done anything to improve the environment better than the Clean Air or Clean Water acts? What church has done better than Social Security for the elderly, Medicaid for the poor, Medicare for either? What church has done better than the American with Disabilities Act to break down discrimination against the disabled, culturally and literally? What church has done better than a myriad government regulation to keep our meat safe, our roads paved to standard, our skies from falling with crashing jets, our children educated, or state universities the envy of the world? What church has had the means, let alone the will, to bail out a Bear Stears, a Fanny Mae, a Freddie Mac? What church has explored the only heavens that matter the way the Hubble Space Telescope has since 1990?

“I don’t have faith in government solution.” And that’s in the last couple of generation. Let’s not get into the church’s love affair with slavery in the United States (the Southern evangelical sort, anyway), to say nothing of its anti-Semitism abroad and its grand inquisitorial, totalitarian haughtiness through the ages.

Rick Warren is a conventional businessman with an unconventional, or rather an unrepentant, strategy. His ways to millions (of dollars, not followers) is the business model that, Pac-man-like, absorbs whatever works best at enabling rapid expansion. He doesn’t have new ideas. His zeal is in repackaging. He’s got the co-opting of softie liberal ideas down cold. He also knows that in this spiritually craven country of ours, faith is the news sex. It sells. His genius is to package it like sex, which happens often to be confused with a diet program: faith is a matter of self-help, a 40-day exercise program. That was his big creative breakthrough in The Purpose Driven Life, the 2002 book that earned him his millions and has now become the standard franchise of sequels repackaging the re-package for every new occasion or language.

And it is to this man that the two candidates submitted on Saturday. In 1992 it was the late-night talk shows that seemed to have broken the mold of where candidates were to make their defining imprints with voters. This time, for all the supposed decline of evangelical power in politics, we have the two candidates paying tribute to the neo-evangelical movement, a mutant of the old, but a hardier strain, a more self-assured one, because it is more brilliantly self-deluded and deluding: it speaks the language of opportunism, of faith not just as a salve (if not quite salvation) for everything that ails, but as a loyalty oath to the way things ought to be: Yes, it's the Church of Latter-Day Rush, minus the OxyContin.

For Rick Warren, it’s a money-printing formula. For his flock, it’s Jonestown as a luxurious gated community rather than an isolated concentration camp in the jungle; it’s the Kool Aid that doesn’t kill. For the country, it’s another sign that reactionaries, too, know how to adapt, and that the hoped-for “change” that might have been anticipated with Obama’s ascendancy may end up being nothing more than a costume change. Especially when Obama himself so willingly, so cravenly debases himself in this new and retrograde Warren Court.

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