By Jeff Sharlet
There’s a strange article about Rick Warren’s “resurrection” in today’s Daily Beast. I’ll start with sympathy for Warren, just to be nice: the Daily Beast attempts to report on evangelicalism like it’s Hollywood, framing the article in terms of who’s hot, who’s not — which, anyway, it gets wrong. Mark Driscoll? So 2005. More, it measures said appeal largely by secular political sway. Warren, who coerced the 2008 presidential candidates to his Orange County megachurch, couldn’t repeat the trick in ’12. So maybe it’s all over. Just like political evangelicalism was when Clinton won in ’92, but not when the Republicans roared back in ’94, but definitely was when he won again in ’96, but not in 2000 or 2004 but definitely in 2006 but not in 2010, but, obviously, in 2012….
So poor Rick Warren’s a victim of a silly media frame. But this is no hatchet job. It begins with a hug from Warren for the author and continues with what reads like reciprocation for the “warm and friendly face of evangelicalism, a welcome, avuncular alternative to hellfire-and-brimstone.”
Unless you’re queer. In which case you might be inclined to think that Pastor Rick’s comparison of homosexuality to incest makes him one creepy uncle, indeed, his “Gangnam Style” ringtone notwithstanding. No, wait – that’s creepy, too, unless you’re trying to set up pop culture as an innocuous foil to fundamentalism.
The article’s author, Michelle Cottle, is a good, serious journalist (in print, at least; I haven’t seen her TV work), so it’s hard to understand what went wrong here. Was it the demands of the Beast, pressure to recast the tale in terms of celebrity struggle? But there are smart editors at the Daily Beast, too, which overlaps with center-left New Republic, where Cottle was a longtime editor, at a number of points. So maybe the problem is bigger, a reflection of the policy media’s fundamental love for “moderation” as the greatest—or most marketable—of virtues. If moderation doesn’t exist, the policy press would create it.
That’s been Rick Warren’s advantage for years. That’s the meaning of the Hawaiian shirts and the goofy goatee, the hugs and the self-deprecation. Warren’s real contribution to American evangelicalism is the perfection of the humble-brag. Consider his explanation of the 10th anniversary edition of his megaseller The Purpose-Driven Life, repackaged as a kind of multi-media box set perfect for the “holiday season.” (Great Hanukkah gift.) “This nation is in desperate need of some direction and purpose and meaning,” he tells Cottle in the Manhattan hotel suite to which he has traveled on a pre-release publicity tour. “Somebody’s got to speak up now. And I though, OK. If nobody else volunteers, I’ll step up.”
To be fair to Cottle, that quote pretty much speaks for its sociopathically narcissistic self.
But what to do with Cottle’s account of Warrenesque talking points like the news that his humanitarian evangelicalism in developing nations—admirable in some regards, blatantly colonialist on others–has drawn praise “from everyone from Billy Graham to Bono to Hillary Clinton.” Who, exactly, does Cottle mean to encompass with this remarkable range? Sally Struthers?
And speaking of Billy Graham, Cottle notes that Warren tried to cast himself in Graham’s image, as a “bridge builder” who doesn’t play “hardball.” Tell that to the Vietnamese whose bridges and dams Graham famously urged Nixon to bomb to kingdom come. Oh, but that’s ancient history. Old man Billy’s just a sweet old thing. A sweet old thing who roused himself from retirement one more time this last electoral cycle to campaign against gay rights in his home state of North Carolina.
I digress. This isn’t about Billy. But it’s not really about Rick Warren, either. It’s about the media myth of moderation, and its exploitation by hustlers like Warren. “We know Rick is socially, culturally, and morally a conservative,” Michael Cromartie, a velvet-gloved bruiser himself, popular with the press for the Key West junkets he’s sponsored through the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center over the years (I know of what I speak). “But [Warren is] very eager not to be seen as Jerry Falwell.”
And the press, even a good reporter like Cottle, is eager to see politically powerful evangelicals as other than Falwell, too. They need good guys and bad guys. That’s what makes it a drama.
Jeff Sharlet is Mellon Assistant Professor of English at Dartmouth College and a contributing editor for Harper’s Magazine and Rolling Stone. His most recent book is Sweet Heaven When I Die. Sharlet was editor of The Revealer from 2003 until 2008.
Image: Nigel Parry for Newsweek, via www.thedailybeast.com