Rick Warren is the celebrity founder of an evangelical "megachurch." He's also the author of The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold 30 million copies. Warren is the icon that every ambitious evangelical pastor strives to become the way a wedding singer grinding out tunes in some godforsaken Holiday Inn lounge would rather be Bono.
Been there, done that. I was an evangelical leader and sidekick to one (my late father, Francis Schaeffer) until I quit in the mid-'80s. Empire builders are empire builders, and entertainers are entertainers, regardless of what they call themselves. Mea culpa!
I only understood the reality of the symbiotic relationship between our consumer/entertainment culture and the star religious empire builders, after I quit being one. Judging by the many emails I am getting from pastors who have read my memoir Crazy For God, it seems that many a preacher is in the position of Groucho Marx. Groucho said he'd never want to belong to a club that would let someone like him join. The self-loathing in the evangelical world is rampant. With good reason -- something I'm exploring in my forthcoming book Patience With God -- Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism), due out this fall.
In Purpose Driven, Warren writes; "It's not about you." But his church is very much about him. He's the star in a personality-cult that fits the celebrity-worshiping temper of our times.
Ask yourself: what will happen to his church when Warren dies, leaves or is thrown out? Will it remain as "successful?" Are people are there for each other and their community? Are they there for Jesus? Or are they there for Rick Warren?
Fulfillment, satisfaction, and meaning can only be found in "understanding and doing what God placed you on Earth to do," writes Warren. But Warren's message turns out to be less about God than it is about trying to convince his readers to become American-style evangelicals -- in other words, to find purpose, they have to join the North American individualistic cult of one-stop, born-again "salvation" to which Warren belongs.
According to traditional Christianity a person was not "saved" or "lost" in a one-stop magical affirmation of Jesus, but rather the process of salvation was lived out in a community. Salvation was a path toward God, not a "you're in or out" event, as in, "At two thirty last Wednesday I accepted Jesus." The process of redemption took, as Hilary Clinton said about child rearing, a village. Bishops and priests came and went, but the Church -- the "village" -- remained.
Today the American evangelical consumer of religion is even more prone to the truism that nothing succeeds like success. Talk about unregulated banks and hedge funds, the biggest unregulated market is big-time religion. Its success isn't measured in spiritual gain that changes anything for the better.
Big-time as religion is in the USA compared to highly secular Europe, nevertheless America's teen sex statistics, abortion rates, spread of STDs, divorce, child rape rates are higher than those in non-church-going Europe. So, the "success" of Warren's type of entrepreneurship is measured in the same way all success in our consumer-driven culture is measured.
It's no coincidence that other entrepreneurs, who aren't necessarily believers, have gotten in on the act. Rupert Murdock now owns the largest "Christian" publishing company, having bought out and then folded it into his stable of publishing companies, one of which publishes Rick Warren.
The evangelical religion is no different in its core "values" than the celebrity-worshiping entertainment-oriented society it claims to be a prophetic witness to. Star power is seductive. The problem is that evangelical faith revolves around two directives: be successful and evangelize.
Pastors aren't a pastors in the evangelical culture any more than evangelical "writers" are writers. Rather "pastors" are but the inventors of their own product line sold as religion, offering it as just another consumer choice to a culture that picks churches the way they pick sweaters.
I can't prove this but I believe it's true: any person who remains a "professional Christian" in the evangelical world for a lifetime, especially pastors, risks becoming atheists. They put on an act of certainty that the actual uncertainties of life can't sustain. Sooner or later they become flakes faking it, or quit.
In the mid '80s my final break with my evangelical past was like turning on some sort of creative tap. I knew that as an artist and writer, even if I could have kept putting up with the "theology" -- which I couldn't -- let alone the insane hate-filled, war-loving, gay-bashing, gun-toting, moron-making right wing politics, that the evangelical subculture is death to creativity.
Since there is no there, there -- no tradition -- all that polices the empire-builders are the self-appointed Church Lady Brigade. You always have moralizing busybodies sniffing around your butt to see if you're pure enough: good for dogs, maybe, bad for writers.
When I left the evangelical world I found that I was no longer looking over my shoulder wondering what people, in other words the Church Ladies, would think. You see, a Rick Warren looks powerful, but he makes a bad trade, sort of like Prince Charles: you get the life and the palace, but being Prince Charles is all you'll ever be. You are your job. It's a gilded cage and you are stuck! It's the worst type-casting imaginable.
Warren, like any evangelical leader, knows that he must park his mind at the door of his golden cage or his empire will melt away under the intolerable weight of the gossip of the Church Ladies.
Warren got a whiff of this when he was foolish enough to go on Larry King in the spring of 2009 and mention that maybe he wasn't as firmly against gay marriage as he was said to have been. As the Washington Times reported on April 11, 2009, "I was extremely troubled," said Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville KY. "Absolutely baffling," huffed Wendy Wright, president of the Concerned Women of America organization.
My friend Richard Cizik, former vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, learned a hard lesson: you have to hate consistently to be an evangelical in good standing.
Cizik was being interviewed by Terry Gross on "Fresh Air" early in 2009 and mentioned that maybe he wasn't against gay civil unions. He didn't even mention gay marriage. End of story! He was fired within days.
Cizik had almost been forced out several years before when James Dobson, of "Focus on the Family" fame, wrote to the NAE board demanding Cizik's dismissal for saying that he thought global warming was real. Cizik got away with that "apostasy" against the Republican Party, that had long since come to be a stand in for Jesus for power hungry evangelical leaders like Dobson. But when Cizik didn't hate gays enough; game over!
Since evangelicals pretty much get to make up their doctrine as they go along they really only have to live by two rules. First, they must be commercial successes in our consumer culture. Second, they must always hate the "other."
Warren ultimately answers to the Church Ladies. And when they are sniffing around you to make sure you are "one of them" the thing they look for first is the reassuring stench of hate.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer and author of Crazy For God -- How I Grew Up As One Of The elect, Helped Found The Religious Right And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back and the forthcoming Patience With God -- Faith For People Who Don't Like Religion (Or Atheism), due out this fall.