Juan Cole's Informed Comment has to be one of the most respected blogs around here, for both his consistent erudition, and his unswerving dedication to progressive principles. In today's post he reflects on a personal encounter with Rick Warren yesterday at a conference for the Muslim Public Affairs Council. I think many fellow Kossacks will find it enlightening and reassuring.
Thanks to maracatu for pointing out this column in another thread. Given Cole's reputation here, I thought it would be of wider interest.
Warren and Cole were both headliners at the conference, which occurred in Long Beach. Melissa Etheridge appeared and sang as well, and it turns out that both Cole and Warren are huge fans of hers. (Go figure!!!) Anyway, while acknowledging Warren's bankrupt opinions on homosexuality, Cole nonetheless confesses surprising admiration for some of Warren's work, and for Warren as a person:
Since I knew both of us would be at MPAC, I bought Warren's book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," and read it on the plane. I was a religion major, so I've read a lot of theology in various religions. It is mostly just standard evangelical talking points.
Warren's book does have some strengths. I was struck that Warren's section early in the book on the notion of "surrender" to God is the best explication I have seen in English of what Muslims mean by Islam. Since he was talking about Christianity, these passages are an unwitting argument for the unity of religions.
So imagine my surprise when I heard Warren talk at MPAC and found that he is a genuine, likeable man. And more than likeable, he seems admirable. A lot of pastors would tell the story of building their congregations and saving souls as the pinnacle of their lives. For Warren, that was only the beginning. He and his wife had an epiphany six years ago when she read an article about there being 12 million children in Africa who had been orphaned by AIDS. They started going to southern Africa, and Warren became devoted to helping those orphans.
But then he began thinking bigger. He has identified 5 major problems he wants to address:
Spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, disease pandemics, dire poverty, and illiteracy. He wants to do job creation and job training. He wants to wipe out malaria in the areas where it is still active. He is convinced that religious congregations are the only set of organizations on earth that can successfully combat these ills. And he is entirely willing actively and directly to cooperate with mosques to get the job done.
Warren, in short, is a representative of the turn of some evangelicals to a social gospel.
He also hints that Warren's opinions on homosexual are inconsistent with his other values, and hence may be amenable to persuasion--as suggested by Etheridge's appeal to gay advocates to reach out to Warren on this issue.
There is much more of interest in the post, so you should go read it in its entirety. But the prospective reemergence of social gospel that Cole suggests would be a tectonic shift in progressive politics, and a wholesale reversal of the Reagan Revolution. Imagine the reengagement of people of faith in our fights ahead for causes of social justice--healthcare, economic equality, environment, and yes, gay rights--the way they were in the abolition and civil rights movement, and opposition to the Vietnam War!
I think Cole's column is a tacit endorsement of Barack Obama's personal judgment, commitment to progressivism, and strategic wisdom. Then again, I never doubted Obama in the first place. But I'm not Juan Cole, am I?