Branding a Compassionate Christ a 'Liberal'

Amid protests, Obama, Brownback join Rick Warren for World AIDS Day event.

LONGWOOD, Fla., Dec. 1, 2006 — -- 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.

A Sense of Global Family

"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.

Protesting Obama's Invitation

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.

"If I were a Democrat strategist and my task was to secure at least a small percentage of the evangelical vote in '08, I would definitely put Barack Obama forward," Schenck said. "He does speak church language, he does understand the churchgoing public, he does have a certain facility when talking about the Bible and prayer and God."

That said, Schenck thinks Obama's positions on abortion and related issues, such as stem cell research, "nullify his moral credibility on those issues" and "I'm afraid that the average American doesn't pay close enough attention to pick out those nuances."

He sees Obama as offering "a credible face for those who may want to obscure what are the big issues for the evangelical community."

Splintering Community

But beyond conservative trepidation about Obama, this debate is just the latest in a number of contentious fights emerging within the Christian conservative community. Many evangelical Christians are openly questioning whether their leaders have focused too much on issues such as abortion while ignoring subjects more relevant to the vast majority of what's in the Bible -- such as helping the poor and the sick.

"What would Jesus do?" they ask.

Warren, in an e-mail to his congregants, responded to the criticism by noting, "Jesus loved and accepted others without approving of everything they did. That's our position too, but it upsets a lot of people."

'Not Just About Morality'

Also upsetting a lot of people is the Rev. Joel Hunter of the Northland Church outside Orlando, Fla.

Hunter was named president-elect of the Christian Coalition of America but resigned this week even before his term could begin, saying the board disagreed with his desire to expand the group's agenda beyond opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

"I wanted for us to do in the political realm, in the political advocacy realm, what we do in the church," Hunter said. " We pay attention to poor people, we pay attention to injustice, we pay attention to those who are sick, we pay attention to the environment, because it's God's gift of creation, and so on and so forth. So I wanted to expand the issue base … because Christ was not just about morality, Christ was about compassion."

Hunter said he would also have "stuck by" the traditional moral issues while tackling the other issues. But this week, he announced that he and the board had parted ways.

"They really weren't ready to risk expanding into these other areas. They were afraid of alienating the base, which is a legitimate concern. They were afraid of declining income, which is a legitimate concern," Hunter said.

"Frankly, one of the ways that you provoke the most response from people is through anger and through fear. It raises a bunch of money. It raises the level of exposure. And so, there are practical reasons for just focusing on a few issues because that's how you get the largest constituency active."

The chairman of the Christian Coalition, Roberta Combs, said she and the board wanted to expand the agenda to issues such as the environment, but wanted to first make sure the rank and file members were on board to let them be a part of their decisions.

Hunter sees that as something of a cop-out

"I've never known how to survey people and really make great strides," he said. "That's not how you expand, you know. You expand by leadership."

But it's tough to do that.

After conservative evangelical David Kuo, former deputy of the White House office of faith-based initiatives, published a book criticizing Christian leaders as being too narrowly focused, he was attacked as liberal, a heretic.

It has only made him more combative.

"Christians have spent so much time evangelizing their politics that they've really corrupted the name of Jesus," Kuo said.

He responded to those criticizing Warren by writing on his blog, "Are they so blind and possessed with such a narrow definition of life that they can think of life only in utero?"

Kuo feels his leaders need to expand their focus, but many -- such as Schenck -- strongly disagree.

"We are not done with the big issues -- again, the sanctity of life, marriage, our public expressions of faith in this country -- we have not even begun to resolve these issues," Schenck said.

When asked why Christian political leaders in Washington are more focused on preventing gays and lesbians from marrying than addressing poverty, Schenck said, "Our peculiar platform is to address the paramount moral issues. That's our charge. That's my job. That is, in fact, in my job description."

He said the morality issue sets the "direction for everything else."

"It's pretty tough to say, 'you should be concerned about that homeless woman on the street if, in fact, we have no respect for the dignity of human life,'" Schenck said.

"The compassion of Christ has somehow been tagged as liberal," Hunter responded. "It's not about being liberal or conservative. It's about following Christ and trying to live the kind of life that he lived."

Avery Miller and Dan Harris contributed to this report.