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POLITICS: Top Pastor Catches Flak for Reaching Out to U.S. Muslims

OAKLAND, California, Jul 14 2009 (IPS) - Pastor Rick Warren would never be described as laid back. However, since delivering the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in late January, he’s been somewhat on the down low.

It’s not that he’s disappeared from the public spotlight – at any given time he’s liable to be speaking somewhere before some prestigious organisation. It’s that he hasn’t been making his business public on the cable news networks.

A few months back, there was the flap over what his level of support for Proposition 8 – California’s anti-same-sex marriage initiative which passed last November – had been during the campaign. Gay marriage supporters pointed out that he was a vocal supporter of the gay marriage ban (and they had the video to prove it), while Warren maintained a “not so much” stance. However, that denial infuriated many of Warren’s Christian conservative colleagues.

Now, Warren, founder of Saddleback Community Church, a megachurch in Orange County, California, and the author of “The Purpose Driven Life”, which has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, has stirred up a hornet’s nest among Christian conservatives with his recent appearance at the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

This year’s convention theme “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness”, “was a call for pluralism and bridge-building between different faith communities in the U.S., symbolized by ISNA’s selection of perhaps America’s top Christian leader as the keynote speaker,” Frankie Martin, the Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University, reported on the ISNA website.

The Indiana-based ISNA brings together Muslim groups from across the country, and its annual convention reportedly draws more than 30,000 people.

On its website, ISNA maintains that it “In addition to building bridges of understanding and cooperation within the diversity that is Islam in America, ISNA is now playing a pivotal role in extending those bridges to include all people of faith within North America.”

While Warren’s appearance may not have been calculated to once again raise his public profile, it came only two months shy of the launch of his next national project – in association with Reader’s Digest – called the “National Life’s Healing Choices Campaign”.

Seeking some measure of “common ground”, Warren told the several thousand convention attendees that “the two largest faiths on the planet” needed to work in concert to bust stereotypes and deal with a myriad of global issues.

“Some problems are so big you have to team tackle them,” Warren said.

Over the past few years, Warren has had an uneasy relationship with longtime leaders of the Christian Right. While he claims that he is not of that movement, he is vehemently opposed to abortion and he has consistently opposed same-sex marriage. The Associated Press pointed out that he “has a record of upsetting fellow Christian conservatives by calling old-guard evangelical activists too partisan and narrowly focused”.

Recognising that his appearance at the ISNA event would be controversial, Warren told the crowd that “It’s easier to be an extremist of any kind because then you only have one group of people mad at you. But if you actually try to build relationships — like invite an evangelical pastor to your gathering — you’ll get criticised for it. So will I.”

Blogger Eric Barger said that “Rather than trying to see how much we have in common with them [Muslims], concerned Believers might better spend their time pointing out the stark difference between Islam and Christianity.”

Steve McConkey, president of 4 WINDS, said in a press release that, “Speaking at interfaith meetings should not be done if a person does not tell the listeners that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven – period. By not doing this, a person is saying that all ways lead to God by works… By Warren’s silence on the exclusive claims of Christ, he led his Muslim audience into believing that works will save a person.”

A few days after his appearance, OneNewsNow, a news service of the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association, featured a story headlined: “Warren panders to Muslim group, omits gospel”. It reported that Jan Markell, founder of Olive Tree Ministries, a Messianic Jewish ministry, roundly criticised Warren: “I’m sorry, that kind of a ‘let’s all get along’ [solution] is not possible – and what he needed to do was tell them the truth,” she said. “But that is not what Rick Warren does. He does not tell the truth, at least not when he’s outside of his Saddleback Church.”

Erick Stakelbeck, idetified as a CBN (Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network) News Terrorism Analyst, pointed out that Warren’s appearance as ISNA “wasn’t the first time he has spoken before a controversial Islamist group.”

In 2008, Warren spoke at the Muslim Public Affairs Council’s annual conference. “MPAC’s rap sheet may not be as bad as ISNA’s or CAIR’s, but they ain’t exactly the Girl Scouts, either,” Stakelbeck wrote. “Question: who does background research for Warren before he agrees to appear at an event? And was he aware of MPAC’s and ISNA’s dubious track records, associations and ideologies beforehand?”

Shortly after 9/11, US law enforcement agencies looked into ISNA’s – as well as a number of other U.S.-based Muslim groups – activities. Two years later, the Senate Finance Committee’s investigation concluded and no action was taken.

Committee chairman Charles Grassley said, “We did not find anything alarming enough that required additional follow-up beyond what law enforcement is already doing.”

At ISNA’s website, Frankie Martin pointed out that in addition to Warren, Yusuf Islam (the entertainer who formerly recorded under the name of Cat Stevens) was also convention attendees.

“In his speech,” Martin noted, “Warren appealed for Muslims and Christians to work together to solve common problems which he said was possible without ‘compromising my convictions or your convictions’.”

Martin described the convention as having an “evangelical-like atmosphere”: “The sound system, giant video screens, and slick mass production values recalled America’s Protestant mega-Churches.”

Martin was in attendance in part to promote “Journey into America”, a film he made with anthropologist and Islamic scholar Akbar Ahmed of American University and a team of young Americans.

“Journey into America” “depicts a nine month journey we took to over seventy five cities and one hundred mosques to study how Muslims were fitting into American society and to promote better understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

Warren spoke of his PEACE Plan which is aimed at dealing with spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, extreme poverty, pandemic diseases, and illiteracy and lack of education. (PEACE stands for promote reconciliation, equip servant leaders, assist the poor, care for the sick, and educate the next generation.)

He also made it clear that he was “not [just] interested in interfaith dialogue.” He said he was more “interested in interfaith project.”

“There is a big difference,” Warren said. “Talk is very cheap. You can talk and talk and talk and never get anything done. Love is something you do. It is something we do together.”

*Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column “Conservative Watch” documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.

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