Branding a Compassionate Christ a 'Liberal'

Dissention among religious leaders led to protests at Rick Warren's AIDS summit


LONGWOOD, Fl., Nov. 30, 2006 — -- A scheduled appearance by Democratic Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., at pastor Rick Warren's "Global Summit on AIDS" Friday afternoon is sparking protests within the Christian community, as conservative evangelical leaders differ in their views of bringing new issues to their political mission.

Warren holds his second annual Global Summit at his 22,000 member church in Lake Forest, Calif.

The 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.

"The fact is the evangelical realm of the church has failed in this area. They've put it off too long, they didn't care," Warren told ABC News last year.

But many leaders decidely care that Warren invited the liberal Democrat Obama to speak at Friday's conference. Dozens of conservative Christians have urged Warren to rescind his invitation, including 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 said. "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 sacred desk.

"Sen. Obama's policies would nullify that right to life, and right now that is the paramount moral issue of our day," he said. "Sen. Obama's presence in Rick Warren's pulpit will send a very confusing signal on that."

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 … "

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 too 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 that's our "peculiar platform."

"Our peculiar platform is to address the paramount moral issues. That's our charge. That's my job," he said. "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.

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