Democratic Sen. Barack Obama's attendance today at pastor Rick Warren's second annual "Global Summit on AIDS" sparked protests within the conservative Christian community, the latest in a series of contentious debates within the movement about its agenda and direction.
Warren, best-selling author of "The Purpose Driven Life" and influential conservative evangelical, decided amidst much fanfare last year that conservative Christians had for too long ignored those suffering with AIDS. And he decided that was not in keeping with the teachings of Jesus. This year, he took the step of inviting Obama -- a liberal supporter of abortion rights who is mulling a presidential bid -- angering many fellow travelers.
In a letter to Warren, some Christian activists wrote "If Sen. Obama cannot defend the most helpless citizens in our country, he has nothing to say to the AIDS crisis. You cannot fight one evil while justifying another."
From the pulpit, Warren acknowledged the controversy, noting the bipartisan attendance of "left wing" Sen. Obama and "right wing" Republican Sen. Sam Brownback, saying, "you have to have two wings to fly," and described both senators as men of integrity, civility and humility.
"We are all sick because of AIDS, we are all challenged by the crisis," said Obama, encouraging the audience of spiritual leaders, social workers and medical professionals to surmount geographic, economic and social distances in fighting the disease.
"No one can solve it on their own," Obama said. "AIDS is an all hands-on-deck effort." Seeming to address criticisms of his attendance, Obama said "what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart."
Obama was preceded by Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who acknowledged Obama's rock star popularity, and humorously described himself as a "mule at the Kentucky Derby" in comparison.
Brownback highlighted his travels to the African subcontinent and the need for bipartisan engagement. "There is nothing political about dealing with malaria and global HIV.
"This is in our best interest," Brownback continued. "This is for us to do. And this is our time to do it."
Doors opened at Warren's 22,000-member Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif. to more than 2,000. Warren, along with Obama and Brownback, will be tested for AIDS as part of the summit in an effort to remove the negative stigma often associated with AIDS testing.
But the good work of the summit seemed to be overshadowed by protests of Obama's appearance, including one by Rev. Rob Schenck, who heads the National Clergy Council.
"When you put someone like Sen. Obama in that pulpit, you loan that individual a religious credential they otherwise wouldn't have," Schenck told ABC News. "That's what we object to."
Schenck said Warren has no business bringing a man who supports abortion rights to the pulpit, what he called a sacred desk.
"Sen. Obama's policies would nullify that right to life, and right now, that is the paramount moral issue of our day," Schenck said. "Sen. Obama's presence in Rick Warren's pulpit will send a very confusing signal on that."
Schenck also seemed to acknowledge that part of the reason for his concern is the fact that Obama, who has made a point of reaching out to evangelical Christians, is pretty good at that task.