Warren’s shadow State of the Union

Published 11:00 pm Friday, February 15, 2013

“I’m not interested in politics.”

While it’s not surprising to hear such a line from a religious leader, it was a little unusual to hear it on State of the Union day in Washington, D.C.

Furthermore, the statement came from Rick Warren of southern California’s Saddleback Church, which has had its political moments: The church once hosted a presidential forum between John McCain and Barack Obama.

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But on this particular day, Warren wasn’t afraid to get a little political. During a roundtable on religious freedom at Georgetown University, Warren challenged our nation’s capital to do a little soul-searching about our stewardship of the gift of religious liberty.

“Can we really talk about the state of our union without talking about the state of our religious freedom?” asked Timothy Shah, associate director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, which hosted the discussion. The question was a leading one, an honest one, and an alarming one. It underscored the reason Warren has gone from leading the United States in prayer before Obama’s first inauguration to insisting that the White House does not have the authority to narrow religious liberty.

Warren agreed with Shah that religious freedom must be guarded.

“History proves that freedom is fragile. It never, ever, ever lasts unless it is nourished and protected and defended,” Warren said, adding that “it is the duty … of every generation to re-preserve the freedom.”

What is this freedom of which Shah and Warren spoke? “It is the freedom to practice my faith and values and the freedom to convert,” Warren said. “It isn’t faith if it’s forced.” He cautions against the misreading of tolerance — mistakenly taking all ideas to be of equal value and dismissing the existence of truth.

Warren’s trip to Washington came shortly after the White House issued new guidelines for religious objectors to its coercive health care mandate, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have found insufficient. Warren stands with them and others, including evangelicals, who remain opposed to the regulation.

“I think they’re window dressing,” he said of the guidelines. “I still am responsible to pay for something I have a fundamental disagreement with: an abortion pill.” He predicted the Supreme Court would strike down the mandate.

At a small press gathering, Warren was asked why he was letting himself get sidetracked from the work he was doing abroad — fighting human trafficking, poverty and disease, and getting kids clean water — to quibble with the Obama administration about an issue widely considered to be a shell game about who pays for a woman’s birth control. He was firm, contending that there are enough of us to fight all forms of injustice. He said he stands 100 percent with his Catholic brothers and sisters who are the most vocal, but not the only, opponents of the White House policy.

“God gives me the freedom to choose — to love him or reject him. If God gives me that choice, I owe you that choice,” he said.

“We’re not going to agree on values in America,” he said, “because we don’t. We have different values. But can we all agree on freedom? Can freedom be a unifying factor?”

Listening to the official State of the Union later in the day, Warren’s prayer from the 2009 inauguration seemed an appropriate soundtrack: “As we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.” And not one of them without the others, we pray.


(Kathryn Lopez is the editor-at-large of National Review Online www.nationalreview.com. She can be contacted at klopez@nationalreview.com.)