Exclusion, Inclusion and Change: Is Rick Warren Today’s Ebenezer Scrooge?

by Tom Hall –

Do you remember what Scrooge did when he woke after that terrible night with the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to be? He flung open his window and told a boy in the street to run around to the butcher shop and buy the prize turkey hanging in the window.

That was in 1843. Back then, it was normal for shops to be open on Christmas Day. People in the early 19th century didn’t believe that Christmas was a day everyone should take off to party, watch football, and get hammered.

Two centuries earlier, when Pilgrims and Puritans founded colonies on our east coast, they didn’t even see Christmas as a Christian holiday. They recognized that the Catholic Church celebrated Christmas. But Puritans believed Catholics weren’t Christians. The governors of both Boston and Plymoth colonies note in their diaries that part of their responsibility included making sure that shops stayed open on Christmas and that people went to work.

Many readers will remember “Blue Laws,” which forced businesses to close on Sundays and religious holidays. These laws, like the Puritan governors’ steps to keep people at work on Christmas, were efforts to impose one religious view on society, at the expense of other views.

Today we are told that Biblical values are timeless and immutable. But the people who tell us that today almost all disagree with the Biblical beliefs of our Puritan and Pilgrim ancestors. They also disagree with the beliefs of the founding fathers at the time of the revolution. And with most of the Blue Laws. How can the values be timeless and immutable if they are different today from what they were 100, 200, or 300 years ago?

The modern insistence that values don’t change, and are not subject to interpretation, is a considered business decision. If values are not open to interpretation, they are not open to discussion or debate. They are what “the Leader” says they are, and anyone who doesn’t toe-the-line is bad or evil by definition.

This claim protects church leaders from any challenge. A church leader who agrees to debate moral issues is essentially admitting that issues might be subject to interpretation. But since the leader has already announced what “the truth” is, he can refuse to debate any issue with the simple claim that any debate might confuse his believers and risk their souls by opening them to be led astray by false ministry.

Thus, the refusal to admit the possibility that dissenting views might have merit serves the purposes of keeping the flock in line, while avoiding any challenge to the leader’s position. And it protects leaders from having to construct any sort of logical argument, and from the risk that a debate opponent might be more literate, attractive or knowledgeable.

The argument structure that allows corporate religionists to evade any challenge to their hypocritical theology also gives them a free ride when it comes to charity. Think back, again to Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge saw the light; he reformed. But how? He gave Bob Cratchit a raise, improved his working conditions and reduced his work hours. He didn’t close down his business and give all his money to the poor (which would have left Bob Cratchit unemployed). He remained a prosperous businessman, but also became charitable, so that it was said he kept Christmas all year ‘round. He became a progressive.
How unlike today’s loudly self-proclaiming “Christians.” With their all-or-nothing approach to values, you either give nothing or give all. Since no one can give all, they excuse themselves by giving nothing. Besides, if you give money to the poor, the poor will just waste it on drink or drugs. Far better to realize that God hates the poor –- that’s why they are poor. Don’t give them charity that will only encourage them to be further dissolute.

The logic which says that any debate on issues is wrong, because it encourages people to actually think about ideas, can be as easily used to say that any gift to the poor will only be used to maintain them in poverty. So don’t give charity, at the same time that you’re not giving credence to any ideas but those you believe in.
In this Christmas essay, can you see the ghost of Pastor Rick Warren? Can you see the ghosts of his detractors?

Let’s be clear about our facts. Warren is not a Christian. He is a businessman who saw, decades ago, the millions being raked in by race-baters like Jerry Falwell. He saw that big theaters, masquerading as churches, could pack in weekly crowds, paying good money for bright, cheery, spectacles carefully tuned to encourage people’s lassitude and forgive any conscious lapses from conscience.

So he joined the business. And he preaches a lot of the same odious ignorance that makes money for him and his fellows. But does he believe it? Consider his eager support of homosexual Congressman David Dreier. Remember his refusal to condemn Trinity Broadcasting Network head Paul Crouch, whose homosexual party life, funded by poor contributors to Crouch’s ministry, was exposed a couple of years ago by the Los Angeles Times

But Warren is also different from most of his televangelist business friends. He has seen new issues arising for the future. He knows his flock is concerned about things like global warming, the environment, and health care. So he has begun to tailor his speeches and writing to exploit these new concerns. He is touching his vast audience with recognition of their real-life concerns (of course always with the reminder that they need to send prayer offerings).

Obama promised us change, both in substance and in style. And he is now delivering it. By asking Warren to speak at the inauguration, he opens the door to using Warren’s grand theater to spread his message that science and religion can coexist. That the future does not have to be as terrifying as other televangelists pretend that it is.

The evangelical right is an insular, isolated, cowering population of people who are more affected by the economic collapse than most. Obama is approaching this subculture of fearful, isolated people through one of their own. He is challenging Republican control of this voting block head on. Bringing Warren into his inauguration symbolically brings in a whole body of people who have been taught to fear any progressive thought or administration. Obama gets a powerful, influential televangelist to proclaim that dealing with the new, the future, the unknown, is not immoral. Is not Armageddon. It does not even have to be scary.

What disappoints me is that the Gay community is so incensed at this. Yes, they should feel very strongly that Warren is a bigot and a danger to their liberties. But gays have too much experience with closed-minded bigotry to imagine that rote exclusion ever leads to improvement.
Warren is wrong on homosexuality and on gay marriage. He is wrong to work to force his religious bigotry into the lives of people who do not share his narrow-minded beliefs.

But Warren has also broken with other corporate churchmen on questions of environmental science and on social policy toward the poor. He may just be a businessman, simply looking for whatever new trend will make him the most bucks. Or he may be a Scrooge for the evangelical movement. Open to learning. Open to seeing truths he hadn’t seen before. Getting ready to change his life in ways neither he nor we yet know.

tom_hall_2.jpgThe voices of the Gay community would do better for the world to model themselves after the ghosts of Christmas past, present, and yet to be –- to offer Pastor Warren visions of truth. As with Scrooge, such ghosts can’t make him see. Only he can bring himself to truth. He has shown some small inkling of perception, with his writings on the environment and poverty. Now is a time for encouragement, rather than condemnation. Now is a time to set an example of outreach and inclusion, rather than more of the exclusion which Warren has preached.

Is it too audacious to hope that Warren can grow as much as Scrooge did? Is it too audacious to hope that with his 20,000-member religious theater he might lead others to grow as well?

Tom Hall

Articles by Tom Hall:

Published by the LA Progressive on December 23, 2008
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About Tom Hall

Tom Hall is a family lawyer in West Los Angeles. He is from Boston, and was raised in Friends Meeting at Cambridge (Quakers) to think that religion was a progressive force. During the Vietnam War, he organized draft counseling centers and worked with groups training people in techniques for disciplined nonviolent demonstrating. After the war, he became just another yuppie working to make a comfortable life. The Bush administration shocked him back into social concerns. Now he’s working to see that the Obama administration lives up to its progressive promises. Tom can be reached at ProgBlog@aol.com