The Economist offers an interesting profile of Rick Warren, the sponsor of this weekend’s faith forum:
On August 16th John McCain and Barack Obama will both appear at one of America’s great mega-churches, Saddleback, in Lake Forest, California, to discuss “leadership and compassion”. The result of the “discussion”—it is not a formal debate because the candidates will be appearing in sequence rather than side by side—will not only help “values voters” decide which man they support. It could also determine whether the host of the event, Rick Warren, can lay claim to one of the most sought-after titles in America, that of “the next Billy Graham”.
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There are plenty of candidates for Mr Graham’s unofficial job, such as Mr Graham’s son, Franklin, who has inherited his father’s striking looks as well as his organisational abilities, and mega-preachers such as T.D. Jakes and Joel Osteen. But all have drawbacks. The younger Mr Graham has described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion” and Messrs Jakes and Osteen are too attached, both personally and theologically, to the “prosperity Gospel”. None of them has Mr Warren’s combination of qualities.
Mr Warren could hardly look less like Mr Graham—he has a beard rather than a lantern jaw and sports open-necked shirts, mostly of the Hawaiian variety, rather than a suit and tie. But the two have a remarkable amount in common, from their Southern Baptist faith to their entrepreneurial skills.
Both men have proved to be geniuses at adapting religion to their times. Mr Graham took the barbed-wire fundamentalism of his youth and reshaped it for the post-war era of two-car garages and upward mobility. Mr Warren took post-war evangelicalism and reshaped it, yet again, for the world of suburban anomie and the search for meaning.
This required entrepreneurial skills of a high order. Mr Graham founded two of the most powerful organisations in post-war evangelicalism, Christianity Today and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Mr Warren has become a one-man dispenser of “purpose”. More than 400,000 pastors have attended his seminars on the “purpose-driven church”, and more than 30m people have bought his book, “The Purpose-Driven Life”. Mr Graham has preached to some 215m people in 185 countries. Mr Warren, though not yet in that league, is also going global, not only with his preaching but also with his charitable work.
Both men also share political skills of a high order. Like Mr Graham, Mr Warren allowed himself to get too close to the Republican Party. In 2004 he supported Mr Bush behind the scenes, taking part in White House conference calls and informing thousands of pastors that they should regard issues such as abortion and gay marriage as “non-negotiable”. But like Mr Graham, he has realised that you need to tread lightly on those non-negotiables if you want to preserve your influence. He is now emphasising poverty, HIV-AIDS, global warming and overseas aid.