Rick Warren: An ignorant claim, a dishonest claim, and a tribal claim

Rick Warren: An ignorant claim, a dishonest claim, and a tribal claim April 10, 2012

1. The ignorant claim.

This isn’t specifically from Rick Warren’s appearance Sunday on ABC’s This Week, but from a tweet following that depressing interview:

The Church has helped the poor far more than any govt, & for 2000 yrs longer! In 2011 our 1 church fed 70,000 unemployed.

OK, first, let’s say yes, good, yay, bravo for feeding 70,000 people. That’s an unqualified Good Thing for this 20,000-member church to be doing. If every median-sized American church did the same thing on the same scale, each would feed 262.5 unemployed people a year and if every American congregation did this, then the unemployed could all be guaranteed 6.28 solid meals a year! So, again, kudos for that.

But it’s doubly ignorant to claim that “The Church has helped the poor far more than any govt, & for 2000 yrs longer!” No one who has ever so much as glanced at the facts of the matter could even begin to believe this. It’s massively wrong on the facts. Even if we include all private-sector charity (not just “The Church”) and even if we arbitrarily restrict “government” to mean only direct assistance and transfers (and not public health, public education, infrastructure, etc.), the public sector still dwarfs the contributions from the private sphere(s).

Perhaps recognizing that folks like Warren would be reluctant to accept this reality, Mark Galli stated the facts rather bluntly in a recent Christianity Today article:

What these latest findings demonstrate is the church’s relative ineffectiveness and impotency at helping the poor. Some Christian activists have been trying to motivate us to care for the poor by pointing out how they are neglected by society. The state is a clumsy and arrogant institution, they argue, and not doing its job. So the church must step in to make a difference. That means that (1) churches should create their own anti-poverty initiatives (like microfinance), and (2) churches should lobby governments to do better.

These recent economic developments suggest that both of these strategies are either insignificant or relatively ineffective. It is not Christian activism that has created history’s greatest poverty reduction initiatives in India and China. And it is not micro but rather macroeconomics that really makes a difference.

This claim is also confusing in light of Warren’s assertion that “the only way to get people out of poverty is J-O-B-S.” As Kevin Drum noted, that’s a solid plank of the Democratic Party platform, and making sure the poor have decent jobs is something liberals have fought for for more than a century. But does Warren really want to argue that the church has provided the poor with more decent jobs than any government, ever? I know Saddleback has a pretty big payroll, but I doubt it compares to, say, the 1.4 million people employed at the moment as active-duty members of the U.S. military.

Warren also seems to imagine that the relatively recent modern separation of church and state has existed for “2000 yrs.” And that the current global scope of Christianity has existed for all of that time as well. (Or did he mean that only “the poor” within Christendom count?)

But it’s not just that Warren’s tweet is massively ignorant on the facts of the matter, it’s also massively ignorant of what centuries of Christian teaching have said about the responsibility to help the poor. This responsibility has never been regarded as exclusive, competitive and zero-sum. It has always been regarded as universal, mutual and complementary. Any given individual’s personal aspect of that universal responsibility will depend on that individual’s particular role, relationship, station, office, proximity and kinship, but there is no person in any role, relationship, station, office, proximity or kinship who is exempt from that responsibility. The obligation is differentiated, but inescapable.

The idea of an either/or responsibility for either the church or the state is sheer nonsense.

Karoli offers a deservedly blistering response to Warren’s doubly ignorant tweet here. Read the whole thing, but here’s just a taste:

In one breath you express sympathy for the poor, and in the next you scapegoat them.

… Your comments were not pastoral nor were they intended to be. They were purely political, fleshed out in substance by a healthy doses of Fox talkers with their “wealth redistribution” talking points. Your brag tweet about how much good Saddleback church did in 2011 for the unemployed is a big red flag exposing your belief that all assistance comes with strings attached. Whether it’s humiliation for being in need, or giving up the notion that our country should offer fair opportunity to those who need it, there’s a price.

2. The dishonest claim.

You hear people talking ...

On television, in public, Rick Warren repeated a silly, nasty lie that we’ve discussed here before when Charles Colson was shamefully repeating it. Here’s Warren:

There is a redefinition from freedom of religion to phrases — now you hear people talking about freedom of worship. That means it’s limiting what the church does to only what happens in the one hour on Sunday morning as worship. … The Constitution says freedom of religion, not just freedom of worship.

As we discussed when Colson and James Dobson were spouting this crap, this is both a stupid lie and a nasty one.

It’s a particularly stupid lie because it can only be told by someone who is: A) Too lazy to use Google; and B) Unaware that not everyone else is too lazy to use Google.

Like Colson and Dobson, Warren says there exists a secret conspiracy to take away the freedom of religion by sneakily replacing it with the phrase “freedom of worship.” Colson and Dobson both look extremely foolish for peddling this garbage because they both specifically stated that President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were leading this devious war on religion, making the ridiculous claim that Obama and Clinton both refuse to say “freedom of religion.” Again, this reflects not just that Dobson and Colson are brazen liars, but that they’re also old men who don’t understand the Internet and don’t realize how very simple it is for everyone to just look it up and to easily find dozens and dozens of instances of those two officials using the phrase “freedom of religion,” as well as dozens of instances of people like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan using the not-at-all nefarious phrase “freedom of worship.”

Warren is younger and cagier. He provides a bit of cover for the lie by fuzzing up the details of the conspiracy he claims exists. “You hear people talking,” he says. You know, people. Them.

This lie that Warren is repeating is also a particularly nasty lie in that it can only be repeated by someone who is willing and eager to presume without evidence — indeed, to presume contrary to evidence — that others are secretly demonic. It makes no sense to say this unless one starts with the presumption that Obama, Clinton and those other “people” one hears talking are evil, evil, eeeeevil anti-Christians.

That is where Warren is starting. That is his presumption. Either he has assumed this without thinking he needed  to bother investigating such a claim before repeating it, or else he has investigated the claim, found out it was hogwash, then decided to repeat it anyway. Knowing liar or irresponsible gossip? Either way he is bearing false witness against his neighbors.

This tells us nothing about the current state of the freedom of religion. It tells us a great deal about Rick Warren.

Rebecca Schoenkopf thus treats this claim of Warren’s with all the respect it is due.

3. The tribal claim.

Much of the ensuing press coverage of the Warren/Tapper interview surrounded Warren’s discussion of the theological differences between Mormonism and evangelical Christianity. Don Byrd of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty notes that Warren’s comments came in response to a very strange non-sequitur of a question from ABC’s Jake Tapper:

On yesterday’s ABCNews This Week, Jake Tapper interviewed Pastor Rick Warren discussing matters of faith and politics. Where discussion of one stopped and another started was sometimes hard to tell. Check out this segue:

TAPPER: Mitt Romney will almost certainly be the Republican nominee, and if that happens, as it looks like it will, he’ll the first member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to be the nominee. A lot of evangelicals have been talking about whether or not Mormons are Christians. Are Mormons Christians?

Wait. What does Mitt Romney’s impending presidential nomination have to do with whether Mormons are considered Christians? What is the glue that holds together the first two sentences above?

Byrd discusses this implicit “glue,” highlighting the church-state concerns that he focuses on at the BJC.

But I see it less as a matter of church and state and more as an example of the tribalism of religious-identity politics.

Tapper’s question, Warren’s ability to follow it and Warren’s ability to answer it without hesitation assume that Warren isn’t there in his capacity as a religious leader or author. The question and the answer both assume, rather, that he is there as the representative of a tribal voting bloc — a special-interest group that understands itself and is understood by others as one faction among others fighting for a large share of the zero-sum pool of societal privileges. Implicit in both the question and the answer is the idea that whether or not a candidate is an evangelical Christian is and ought to be a serious consideration for evangelical Christian voters.

Warren’s discussion of Mormonism clarified the difference between his tribe and Romney’s tribe, but neither he nor Tapper thought it inappropriate to be discussing either politics or religion in such tribal terms.


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