Is Rick Warren Scared of George Stephanopoulos?

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ABC’s “This Week” began Sunday with this announcement from a slightly miffed George Stephanopoulos: “For those of you tuning in this morning expecting to hear from Pastor Rick Warren, we were too. But the pastor’s representatives canceled moments before the scheduled interview, saying that Mr. Warren is sick from exhaustion.”

The interview had promised some fireworks, given Warren’s recent conflicting statements about the extent to which he campaigned for the passage of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that banned gay marriage in the state. Now, I don’t want to let the fact that I missed Easter services for the first time in my life to catch and cover the never-was-interview (note to self: buy in-laws DVR) color my opinion about whether Pastor Rick was telling the truth about his exhaustion. But I do think it’s valid to examine why he might not have been completely psyched about going through with an appearance on “This Week.”

For a man who is arguably the most famous religious leader in the world after the Pope, Warren is surprisingly sloppy when it comes to speaking in public. He acknowledged as much during an April 6 appearance on “Larry King Live,” saying that “Everybody should have 10 percent grace when they say public statements.” But Warren needs more like 50 or 60 percent grace.

There are two main reasons Warren tends to get himself in trouble when he talks in front of a microphone. The first is that unlike most public figures, he doesn’t carefully script every utterance. In the now-infamous Saddleback video address in which he offers a full-throated endorsement of Prop 8–a video Warren seems genuinely surprised ever became public, despite the fact that it was distributed via email to 30,000 people and posted on his blog at the church’s website–the pastor appears to be speaking off-the-cuff. “You need to support Proposition 8,” he tells the camera. “This is not just a Christian issue; it’s a humanitarian issue.”

He uses the same winging-it style in the devotions he records on DVD for his new Purpose Driven Connection magazine. Listening to one a few months ago, I was startled to hear Warren recommend that couples whose marriages are on the rocks consider going into heavy credit card debt to pay for therapy. During a time of severe economic collapse. On the one hand, it’s refreshing to hear a public figure speak without any filters. On the other, there’s a reason “Bullworth” was just a movie. Speaking without thinking doesn’t tend to serve people well in real life.  

Warren’s other habit is to do his best to agree with whomever he’s speaking to. I suspect it comes partly from his pastoral experience, but even more from a desire to prove that he’s not one of “those” evangelicals. He wears Hawaiian shirts. He has an easy laugh. He hugs people. A lot. If James Dobson is the Grinch, Rick Warren wants to be Mr. Rogers.

It’s why when he’s talking to Larry King, Warren mentions his gay friends and says he “never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop 8 was going.” And when he’s talking to Sean Hannity, Warren voices his agreement when the FOX host advocates assassinating the president of Iran. And when he sits down with the Wall St. Journal, he gets downright snarky about Democrats and religious liberals. 

When it comes to gay marriage, Warren dearly wants to be a Southern Baptist who believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman–but also a man whose gay friends understand he’s not intolerant. He appears to have missed the fact that the gap between those two impulses is what the debate over gay marriage is all about. That’s not surprising, though, since as I wrote earlier this year, Warren also “wants to be both the universally admired pastor who speaks to the nation and the influential leader who mobilizes religious conservatives for political ends. But those are two inherently conflicting roles, and he cannot be both, no matter how hard he tries.”

Proposition 8 is just the most visible and recent example of Warren trying to have things both ways. Eight days before Election Day, Warren was very clear. In fact, he says so in his video message: “Let me say this really clearly: We support Proposition 8. If you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8.” After the election, Warren spoke to Beliefnet’s Steven Waldman about his support for the initiative and went even further (watch video here): 


BELIEFNET: What about partnership benefits, in terms of insurance or hospital visitation?

WARREN: You know, not a problem with me. The issue to me, I’m not opposed to that [some partnership rights] as much as I’m opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.

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

WARREN: Oh I do.

Not surprisingly, those were the comments that were pointed to by critics when Warren was asked to offer the invocation at Obama’s Inauguration. Warren didn’t like being called anti-gay–and understandably so. But he is now trying to insist that he never said the things that he did. To Larry King, he complained: “I was asked a question that made it sound like I equated gay marriage with pedophilia or incest, which I absolutely do not believe.” (As you can see in the transcript, Warren brings up the comparisons himself.)

He also insisted that he is “not an anti-gay or anti-gay marriage activist. I never have been, never will be. During the whole Proposition 8 thing, I never once went to a meeting, never once issued a statement, never — never once even gave an endorsement in the two years Prop 8 was going.” Warren made the same case to Christianity Today: “I never said a word about it until the eight days before the election, and then I did make a video for my own people when they asked, ‘How should we vote on this?’ It was a pastor talking to his own people.”

That’s kind of like saying that when Obama sends a message to Congress, it’s just a guy talking to his colleagues. Warren has a congregation with 25,000-plus members and a worldwide readership numbering in the tens of millions. If him speaking out on the most controversial issue of the election eight days before people head to the polls, saying “You need to vote for Proposition 8” does not constitute campaigning or an endorsement, then words have lost their meaning. 

It’s a pretty easy bet that George Stephanopoulos had clips of all these comments cued up and ready to go Sunday morning. Rick Warren is a talented communicator and has inspired millions of people. But in trying to explain or reconcile those contradictory statements, he wasn’t going to be able to wing it. Maybe the mere thought of trying exhausted him.