Rick Warren works the room at the White House

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President Bush on Wednesday signed a five-year renewal of funding to help prevent and treat HIV/AIDS in Africa, calling the occasion “an historic and joyous day.”

On his way out of the White House East Room after signing the bill, the president stopped amidst a human corridor of military aides and reached into the crowd to greet one man in particular.

Mr. Bush, leaning a bit, reached out with his left hand and slapped the right hand of a large man in a light-colored suit, light green shirt, and tie, who sported a goatee: the Rev. Rick Warren.

The president’s words to Mr. Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, were indistinguishable, but he was virtually the only person Mr. Bush paused to talk to after signing the AIDS bill into law.

Mr. Warren, whose church has about 22,000 members, hobnobbed with U.S. senators as the crowd dispersed, talking to Sen. Joe Biden, Delaware Democrat, and then greeting Sen. John Kerry, Massachussets Democrat. Mr. Warren, with his “chief of staff” Steve Komanapalli trailing behind, patted Mr. Kerry on the arm as the two men introduced their wives to one another.

Mr. Warren, following on the success of his 2002 book “The Purpose Driven Life,” has become a major player in the global AIDS community because of his activism in organizing churches to help the African continent fight the disease.

Mr. Warren’s influence as an evangelical leader has grown to the point where on Aug. 16, he will host a two-hour “compassion and leadership” forum at Saddleback with the two presumptive presidential candidates, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama and Republican Sen. John McCain.

The two politicians will not appear on the stage together, but the event is important because of Mr. Warren’s status as an evangelical leader who, though he is not without many detractors, has credibility across great swaths of the global Protestant community.

Mr. Warren told me in an interview that he is not sure who young evangelical voters will support in the fall election. There has been muchspeculation that one of the GOP’s most loyal voting blocs could be slipping away from the Republican party

“Nobody can really tell what direction they’re going to go, the young evangelicals,” Mr. Warren said. “They’re more pro-life than their parents but they’re anti-religious right.”

Mr. Warren said he and others like him have moved past simply being pro-life and anti-abortion, calling himself “whole life.”

“I’m for the baby before it’s born but also after it’s born. For example, if it’s a crack baby,” he said, alluding to his support for government programs to help low-income families that have not traditionally been important issues for the conservative Christian movement.

 

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