Fox News poisons Rick Warren

Fox News poisons Rick Warren April 15, 2009

Strange but true. And on Easter Sunday no less.

Warren canceled a scheduled appearance Sunday morning on ABC News' "This Week," saying he was "sick from exhaustion." Exhaustion seemed like a reasonable explanation — the guy preached six Easter sermons, after all, at the end of the holiest, and therefore busiest, week of the Christian calendar. He'd been scheduled to preach 12 sermons, plus the appearance on ABC, which seems to me a bit too much for anyone to take on.

But apparently it wasn't so much the hectic schedule as it was the varnish. Christianity Today confirms this account from MSNBC:

The megapastor was not only too exhausted … he was also a little nauseous.

That's because Fox News Channel, which carried a couple of Warren's Easter services, insisted that his Saddleback Church apply a fresh coat of varnish to the pulpit lectern before broadcast. The varnish was still drying when it was time for Warren to preach his next service, and the fumes got to him.

I can't help but wonder if Fox News uses the same varnish on all of its anchor desks. That could explain a lot.

And but so anyway the answer to Amy Sherman's question — "Is Rick Warren Scared of George Stephanopoulos?" — turns out to be No.

I'm not sure it's possible for anyone to be scared of George Stephanopoulos. But Sherman's point, really, was that Warren seemed like he was uncharacteristically avoiding the media spotlight due to the controversy following his April 6 appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live." In that interview, Warren seemed desperate to convince Larry and the rest of America that he is not an anti-gay bigot, or that he doesn't consider himself an anti-gay bigot, or that his advocating the denial of civil rights to one class of people doesn't mean he wouldn't be happy to share a friendly meal with such people and therefore it's OK. Or something like that.

That interview drew fire from all sides for Warren. First and loudest from his right, from those evangelical leaders who do think of themselves, proudly and super-righteously, as anti-gay bigots. They don't trust Warren because he prayed at Obama's inaugural and because his church is bigger than theirs are and because, above all, he has never exhibited sufficient enthusiasm for the central tenets of their faith: condemning women who have sex and condemning homosexuals for existing. Sure, when pressed, Warren will eventually agree with them on those issues, but he doesn't share their glee in doing so. Most of the time it seems he'd rather talk about anything else than those two things which are, for these evangelicals, the most important things ever.

So immediately following Warren's Larry King interview, the e-mails started flying from religious right groups claiming new evidence that Warren was "soft" on homosexuality.

But at the same time, of course, Warren was also taking fire from those of us on the other side of this issue who were busy pointing out that Warren really did say all those things he told Larry King he never said, and that he said them, more than once, on video. And so, Warren's critics pointed out, he was denying having said something he did say. What's that called again, when you deny something that you know is actually true? Ah, yes, that's the word.

I kind of feel bad for the guy. His instinct is to try to make everyone happy, or at least to try to avoid making anyone angry. Thus when faced with the choice of contradicting himself or contradicting whoever it is he happens to be talking to, he'll usually opt for contradicting himself. And then he'll get caught contradicting himself, and then everyone winds up angry with him and no one is happy.

You may remember this as the plot of every single episode of Three's Company.

Sherman offers an excellent description and summary of Rick Warren's Jack Tripper problem:

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. …

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. …

Proposition 8 is just the most visible and recent example of Warren trying to have things both ways.

Beliefnet's Steven Waldman offers a similar description of Joel Osteen who is, like Warren, a rising star of the younger generation of evangelical leaders and who is also, like Warren, desperate to be perceived as more inclusive, less negative and less hyper-partisan than the older generation of Dobsons and Falwells.

When Waldman asks Osteen about gay marriage and homosexuality more generally, Osteen begins to squirm. He doesn't want to talk about it. He wants to be Mr. Inclusive, but he knows that his answers to these questions will be anything but. Osteen is almost apologetic when, pressed by Waldman, he concedes that he is opposed to gay marriage and that he is amenable to the idea of "reparative therapy."

Waldman summarizes their discussion this way:

Osteen literally didn't mention gay marriage in either of his books. He seems to take a traditional position when confronted but tries to avoid the topic.

Somewhere between the conservative Christians fighting against gay marriage and the progressive Christians fighting for it, are folks like Joel Osteen who have a traditional view but want to move it waaaay to the bottom of the agenda — a formula that might be called, "Don't Ask. Don't Preach."

Rick Warren is right there straddling the same fence as Joel Osteen. And it's a picket fence.

Their position, in other words, is neither comfortable nor sustainable. Eventually, they're going to need to come down on one side or the other.

I fully suspect that they'll come down, finally, the way they always do when pressed on the point. They'll come down on the side of the safe, required, mandatory response that won't jeopardize their standing or their funding in the evangelical subculture. But there's something — empathy? conscience? a sense of fairness? the Holy Spirit? — that makes men like Warren and Osteen reluctant to make that leap to safety until they absolutely have to. Wouldn't it be something if one day one of them stopped quenching that spirit and took the leap to a position that was inclusive in fact rather than just "inclusive" in posture and temperament?

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