On April 30th, Biola University—ranked among the most conservative schools in the country—will play host to a conversation between famed academics Robert “Robbie” P. George and Cornel West entitled “The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil.” George has been described as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” West, on the other hand, is a world-renowned progressive political philosopher and race theorist. The two affirm a deep and mutual friendship, and have shared classrooms and stages across the country for nearly a decade, seeking to exemplify fruitful dialogue across political and ideological and differences.
It’s a curious rapport, but in a society and culture that often promotes either antagonism or avoidance rather than deep and thought-provoking engagement within conflict, it is a rare and exciting thing to witness. The real story to pay attention to, though, is the relationship between George and the event’s moderator—the anything-but-moderate evangelical megachurch pastor, Rick Warren.
For many years, George operated outside of public view, establishing tremendous networks of influence amongst powerful leaders in academia, religion, and politics. As popular conservative leaders and pundits captured the public’s attention, George was quietly and methodically writing their script. As the conservative Catholic journal Crisis explained in a 2003 article: “He runs a kind of free-lemonade stand of advice for senators, congressmen, Catholic bishops, and evangelical leaders” who are looking for effective arguments against women’s bodily autonomy or equal rights for LGBTQ people.
He is the vice chairman of the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center, chairman emeritus of the National Organization for Marriage (which recently disclosed its plan to go global with their anti-LGBTQ work), sits on the board of directors for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (the Green Family’s legal counsel in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby), co-founded the right-wing Witherspoon Institute (responsible for the thoroughly debunked but still destructively anti-LGBTQ Regnerus study), and serves on the editorial boards for multiple conservative publications, including the LDS (Mormon )Church-owned Deseret News. In 2012, George was appointed to the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, where he serves as vice chair.
In 2009, George finally stepped into the spotlight as the primary author of The Manhattan Declaration: A Call of Christian Conscience, a manifesto signed by approximately 150 of America’s leading right-wing religious and political activists calling for a rededication to the fight for “the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty.” As PRA research fellow Fred Clarkson observed, The Manhattan Declaration’s distinct achievement—beyond serving as an anti-LGBTQ, anti-woman rallying cry—was “to broaden and deepen the emerging alliance between conservative Roman Catholics and right-wing evangelical Protestants.”
Indeed, the Declaration’s signatories make up a who’s who list of the U.S. Religious Right, including prominent anti-gay culture warrior Rick Warren. Warren was also invited to speak at “Humanum: An Interreligious Colloquium on the Complementarity of Man and Woman” in November 2014—a Vatican-sponsored event that George served as a key organizer for.
Now, the two men are experimenting with their own version of complementarity, each playing distinct roles in the manipulation of religious liberty arguments (e.g. Hobby Lobby’s claim that the Affordable Care Act violates their “deeply held religious convictions”)—the Right’s newest attack strategy against civil rights for women and LGBTQ people. In his usual behind-the-scenes way, George has been acting as one of the primary strategists, writing the script for the state-by-state Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) saga playing out across the country, while Warren—always a sucker for the spotlight—has taken on the task of mobilizing his cast of “purpose-driven” characters to act out George’s drama.
With talk of civil disobedience and martyrdom, Warren is mobilizing his followers to fight for the “fundamental human right” of religious liberty—a right that he insists is being threatened by the steady expansion of rights and protections for women and LGBTQ people. (Not surprisingly, Warren’s concern for human rights is ideologically selective—in addition to being a strident opponent of marriage equality, he has said of homosexuality that it is “not a natural way of life and thus not a human right.”)
Though Rick Warren presents himself as a moderate, it’s no secret that he is a fundamentalist conservative known for his opposition to LGBTQ equality and women’s reproductive freedom. He is the founder and senior pastor of Saddleback Church, a Southern Baptist megachurch based in Lake Forest, California that boasts an average weekly attendance of 20,000 people.
In addition to having multiple branches throughout Southern California, Saddleback has also branched out globally. In 2005, Warren announced his “P.E.A.C.E. Plan” to address what he calls the “five global giants” of spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, poverty, disease, and illiteracy. Concentrating on twelve strategic “Gateway Cities” around the world, including Accra, Amman, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Moscow, the P.E.A.C.E. Plan is rapidly expanding Warren’s reach and influence around the world.
The millionaire pastor travels extensively as part of his dominionist agenda, spreading his dangerous right-wing ideologies wherever he goes by developing close relationships with government leaders, business leaders, and religious leaders, including many prominent anti-LGBTQ pastors. When launching his “Purpose Driven Living” campaign in Uganda in 2008, Warren proclaimed to a crowd of cheering church leaders, “The future of Christianity is not Europe or North America, but Africa, Asia, and Latin America.” Warren was also one of the key U.S. culture warriors responsible for Uganda’s infamous “Kill the Gays” legislation. He eventually denounced the bill after he came under fire in U.S. media, which prompted vitriolic anti-LGBTQ Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa to pen an open letter to Warren demanding to know why he was saying things contrary to what he’d said in Uganda.
Despite these PR missteps, Warren hasn’t shied away from the international scene in the least. Sometimes referred to as “America’s pastor,” he is also arguably aspiring to be “Africa’s pastor,” too.In an email to supporters sent out in May 2014, Warren announced that he will host an “All-Africa Purpose Driven Church Leadership Training Conference” in Kigali, Rwanda later this year. He is calling for leading African evangelicals from each of the continent’s 54 countries to join him, as well as 54 other American pastors whom Warren has enlisting to join him, in order to “adopt” these new “purpose driven” recruits. This will be the first of five continent-wide conferences over the next five years—Warren’s final campaign before retiring from Saddleback in 2020.
Rwanda ranks among the world’s poorest countries, and has been the focus of much of Warren’s international work since he first visited at the invitation of President Paul Kagame in 2005. Kagame enlisted Warren’s help in making the small African nation the first “purpose-driven country” after reading the famous pastor’s bestseller, A Purpose Driven Life. Warren now sits on Kagame’s Presidential Advisory Council, and claims Rwanda as his “home,” pointing to his Rwandan diplomatic passport as proof.
That Kagame has been accused of numerous human rights violations by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and others seems not to have deterred Warren, who has hosted him multiple times as a guest of honor at Saddleback’s main campus. After all, the notion of “human rights” is an ambiguous one for Warren, reserved primarily for straight Christians facing “persecution” here in the U.S.
To be clear, the real threat—both in the U.S. and around the world—is the Christian Right’s attempt to co-opt the language of human rights and religious liberty, and (under the guise of “civil discourse”) advance their myth of persecution, which ultimately serves as a strategy to trump the rights of others and justify discrimination. Robert P. George and Cornel West might be the duo attracting the most attention tonight, but as backlash against gains made by women and LGBTQ people grows, the ones to really watch will be Robbie and Rick.