Monday, December 22, 2008

Some of my best friends think Rick Warren is a rightwinger

Maybe the attention I've given to "America's pastor"-wannabee Rick Warren in my posts the last few days is excessive. But looking at the doings and ever-changing marketing strategies of the Christian Right has pretty much always been a focus of my attention.

The Christian Right has long since become not just a player but a fixture of American politics. They are the Republican Party's primary base. But the general media treatment of them has been poor. Not in the sense that Republican victimology calls for, as when Christianists argue constantly that they are being horribly persecuted by "secularists".

Rather the reporting has often been ill-informed and superficial. And the analysis, while occasionally dismissive in an unrealistic way, has tended to treat the professed intentions of Christian Right groups and leaders at face value, at least until one of them gets caught out in a financial or sex scandal. And ever since Paul Weyrich and his collaborators organized the Christian Right around defending the tax-exempt status of segregated private church-affiliated schools,

(On Weyrich's role, see Remembering Paul Weyrich by Max Blumenthal, TalktoAction blog 12/20/08, and Paul Weyrich, “Godfather” of Modern Conservative Movement, Dead at 66 by Bill Berkowitz Rreligion Dispatches 12/19/08.)

Stirling Newberry at FireDogLake (Rick Warren Pays Himself First 12/21/08) does the kind of analysis that is badly needed about Christian Right groups.

He references a post by Juan Cole, who after appearing at a conference with Warren, is ready to buy Warren's marketing spin: "Warren, in short, is a representative of the turn of some evangelicals to a social gospel."

Cole is an expert on Shi'a Islam and one of my favorite bloggers and commentators. I've probably quoted him as much in my blog posts as I have any other one person. But I think he got snowed on this one. Since Warren just a few days ago was dismissing unnamed representatives of the Social Gospel variety of Christianity as "closet Marxists" - which he certainly didn't mean as a compliment! - I'm afraid Juan is being overly generous to the Rev. Warren in this case.

What Newberry does is look at some examples of actual projects that Warren promotes that are at the center of his claim to be a kinder, gentler version of fundamentalist bigot. Newberry writes:

Many people praise his social engagement, in for example, AIDs intervention. The people who I know in NGOs are considerably less impressed. It turns out that Warren's social gospel is a great deal like his theological gospel: a fraud, used to beat down opposition by declarations of love and submission, and then a demand for money to be used for the multiplication of his, rather than His, servants. Let me take two examples from his PEACE project.

The arguement [sic] of PEPFAR, Bush's AIDs plan, is that churches, already being present and having authority, can be used for service delivery. However, the "P" in "PEACE" stands for ... "plant churches." If Churches are already present, then there is no need to plant them, now is there? If they are not already present, it means that funding for PEACE is really government funding for missionary conversion work. In fact, the second letter is to create missionaries. One has to get to "A" before doing anything for actual people. Warren pays himself first. [my emphasis]
Note here that Newberry's analysis of the "PEACE" program is going on the project own self-description, which on the face of it raises questions about the alleged "social" component of Warren's message and programs.

Is this really so difficult that reporters at our major lack the time or research skills to do it?

I'll interject here that in an early stage of my own career, I worked as a funding administrator on grants to private job-training programs. I was particularly impressed that religious-affiliated groups with whom I dealt, like the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the Catholic-affiliated St. Vincent de Paul charity not only did a good job and kept good records. They also knew how to keep a reasonable separation between the charity aspects of their work and any proselytising activities. And that was years before Bush's "faith-based programs". Many religious charities do good work and governments are well-advised to work constructively with them. But if we're handing out tax money or evaluating the actual nature of those programs, we need to look at results, not just stated intentions. And when the stated intentions put church expansion and proselytising as the top priorities, that's something that needs to be taken into full account.

Newberry also looks at a related project, PEACE, "Hispanics for Christ":

It's sole objective? Create churches among American Hispanics and convert them. That's the whole project. One can say many things about the American hispanic population, but an absence of Christianity isn't any of them. As a group Hispanics attend church more than whites. Saturation planting of churches is its aim, with no other objective. PEACE means sectarian conflict first. There is one for Mexico too. Note that the "ACE" is dispensed with, and only the "PE" is funded. Help the poor? First get their donations and devotion. Rick Warren Pays himself first. [my emphasis]
I do want to emphasize that Newberry is not looking at the specific results in his post. But what he sets up is an important framework, which is that Warren's "social" programs sound even by their own self-descriptions more like religious-proselytizing programs.

But Newberry's closing polemical remarks are, for that reason, not well supported in his analysis as presented there. For instance, it's a thought-provoking idea when he says, that Warren's PEACE project in the Philippines "is Disaster Christianity. Find hopeless people, give them a few goods and services, and then build a theocracy. It is the model of Hamas in Palestine."

But Hamas actually does deliver some kind of basic services and also functions as a political party. Hizbullah in Lebanon uses a similar model. Newberry's own comments suggest instead that Warren's projects may provide very little in the way of actual social services or training to organize concrete demands to governments on material needs.

I haven't read Warren's famous and, even in Juan Cole's analysis, pretty superficial book, A Purpose Driven Life, which Newberry describes as "a book that is like a cigarette commercial, it is designed, not to persuade people who have some question about religion, but to make people who are already addicts switch to Saddleback [Warren's church]."

He goes on to criticize Warren: "Rick Warren is that typical figure from Christian history, the pastor who consorts with Mammon, such as Rupert Murdoch, and tells them that wealth is good. In his book he repeatedly says that handling worldly wealth is a sign of spiritual good."

This may well be a fair criticism. But it's also worth noting that one of Warren's selling points as a kinder, gentler Christianist involves criticizing the "prosperity gospel", at least in a general way. I'm guessing that a closer analysis of Warren's positions on this would show that his criticisms are directed more at the particulars of the "prosperity gospel" advocates, many of whom are Pentecostals. But that he also promotes in practice the idea that God is especially fond of the wealthy, though even a hardline Christian Right leader like Warren is unlikely to phrase it like that.

One last thing. It's not mentioned in the articles discussed above. But when Warren says, "I have many gay friends. I've eaten dinner in gay homes", does it strike anyone else but me that this sounds an awful lot like the stereotypically phony claim: "Some of my best friends are Negroes", "Some of my best friends are Jews", etc.?

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