2016-07-27
Usually when the words "evangelical" and "poverty" appear in the same sentence, the minister at the helm is Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, or Tony Campolo. And when Rick Warren is written and talked about, it's almost never in the context of any political issue.

But Warren, who is the pastor of Saddleback Church, a megachurch in Lake Forest, California and the author of the blockbuster book "The Purpose-Driven Life," is diving into the issue of Christian responsibility to combat global poverty.

The move took the form of an open letter campaign to President Bush, launched June 3 by Warren together with heavyweights Billy Graham and British evangelical John Stott and sent to over 150,000 evangelicals nationwide.

"I deeply believe that if we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God's love for the world," Warren wrote in his appeal for participants in the campaign.

A top evangelical leader, Warren's support lends powerful weight to the cause of ending global poverty. Barna polls have found that Warren comes in near the top of the list when pastors are asked who they feel is the most influential evangelical leader. He was listed first in the "Time" magazine list of the 25 most influential evangelicals, along with other more traditionally political evangelical leaders such as NAE president Ted Haggard and Southern Baptist Richard Land.

Following its publication in 2002, "The Purpose Driven Life" went on to become the best selling book for 2003 and 2004, and the best-selling non-fiction hardback in history, with sales of more than 22 million copies. Warren and his wife, Kay, have set up three foundations through which to distribute 90 percent of the proceeds from the book back into global ministry, including assistance to individuals in developing countries who have been infected and affected by AIDS.

Warren stressed that his action did not signal a new, political phase of his career, but rather was an urgent call to practice his Christian faith. "I've never been involved in partisan politics--and don't intend to do so now--but global poverty is an issue that rises far above mere politics," he wrote. "It is a moral issue . a compassion issue . and because Jesus commanded us to help the poor, it is an obedience issue!"

More moderate and liberal religious leaders have long urged evangelical Christians-who claim their ranks comprise 40-50 percent of the Republican Party-to give more attention to poverty issues. Now, it appears, those appeals have hit home.

"Many leaders of the evangelical community have been stung by the criticism that's been directed at them from outside the evangelical community," including Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.

As for criticisms from among their own ranks--chiefly Wallis, Sider, and Campolo--Green says, "Maybe that stung a little bit more."

Warren's letter, and his increasingly outspoken endorsement of a global agenda, has some thinking that a natural alliance is emerging between Warren and his socially conservative colleagues and liberal anti-poverty figures like U2 rock star Bono. But in order for such an alliance to fully materialize, says commentator David Brooks, conservative Christians might have to take a break from the abortion- and gay marriage-centered "culture wars."

"We can have a culture war in this country, or we can have a war on poverty, but we can't have both," wrote Brooks in a May 26 New York Times column.

It's unclear what this line in the sand might mean for Warren's relationship with both his evangelical compatriots and the Bush administration.

But the boundaries between groups may be becoming somewhat more permeable, as evidenced by Pat Robertson's appearance alongside Brad Pitt, Tom Hanks, Ellen DeGeneres, and P. Diddy in a recent public service announcement for The ONE Campaign to end poverty.

Warren's push is part of a larger vision he has been unfolding over the last few months. In April, during Saddleback's 25th anniversary celebration, he announced he would lead thousands of churches around the world in eradicating five "giant problems" that oppress billions of people: 1) Global poverty. 2) Diseases, such as AIDS, that affect billions of people. 3) Illiteracy -- half the world is illiterate. 4) Spiritual emptiness -- billions of people don't know their purpose in life. 5) Self-centered leadership.

Saddleback's network of 2,600 small groups is now in the process of adopting villages in the small country of Rwanda, where a million people were killed in a 100-day genocide in 1994. Warren chose Rwanda after a recent visit there, and he hosted the president of Rwanda at the Saddleback anniversary.

Warren isn't the only evangelical leader outside the short-list of the Religious Left to take on poverty-the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) adopted a document in October 2004 that urged evangelicals to embrace an agenda that is broader than-but doesn't exclude-the social morality-focused "culture wars."

It might appear that Warren's focus on global poverty and the NAE's articulation of a broad evangelical agenda including attention to both poverty and environmental issues they term "creation care" puts them at odds with prominent evangelical leaders like Dr. James Dobson, whose organization Focus on the Family prioritizes family and morality issues, chiefly abortion and gay marriage. But in an interview with Beliefnet, the Rev. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs at the Washington, DC-based NAE, says that the situation facing evangelicals isn't either-or.

"We have both the intellectual and the human capital to engage in all the issues all the time in a full-scale assault against the apathy, post-modernism, and nihilism that characterizes our age," Cizik said.

But at a June 8 meeting of the Consultation for Interfaith Education (CIE) in New York City, Cizik had stronger words to describe the fault lines within the evangelical community over combating what he calls the "structural evil" of global economic inequality. While Cizik's organization has made a commitment to the global anti-poverty effort being undertaken by the CIE, other evangelical groups, he said, want to hew exclusively to a domestic, "family issues" public agenda, which means abortion and gay marriage. Cizik further cited James Dobson as a leader of "isolationist" evangelicals whose refusal to "extend support of the community to addressing poverty and the environment" he referred to as "the Empire strikes back."

In his Beliefnet interview, however, Cizik was more conciliatory, saying that his organization and groups like Dobson's can work simultaneous toward their respective and shared goals.

"Jim Dobson's concerns are well-founded," Cizik said, "Dobson's culture war issues are not irrelevant. I believe we can mobilize our constituencies, which overlap, in a way that doesn't spread us too thin."

Observers say that while the global poverty issue is fairly universally accepted as a welcome addition to the evangelical agenda, the new broadening trend isn't without controversy.

Global warming in particular has been contentious, pitting those who, like Cizik, believe the issue of "creation care" is inextricably linked to fighting global poverty against those who feel that environmental concerns are overly inflated.

Warren's focus on global poverty, meanwhile, is crucially timed, says Cizik. With the G-8 nations (a summit meeting of the leaders of eight major industrial nations) scheduled to meet in July, he said, now is the time to act and influence those in a position to work to alleviate poverty. "We won't have the spotlight next year," Cizik said.



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