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KELLNER: Warren driven by a new purpose — religious freedom

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The contentious cause of religious liberty has a new, high-profile advocate: Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church in Lake Forest, Calif., and author of "The Purpose-Driven Life," the 10-year-old publishing phenomenon that has to date sold upwards of 62 million — yes, million — copies.

After selling all those books, Mr. Warren and his church, where 40,000 attend small-group Bible studies weekly, have spent much of the past decade working to eradicate poverty, disease and illiteracy in Africa, and to thwart human trafficking in California and Thailand. Counting both President George W. Bush and President Obama as "friends," Mr. Warren is no stranger to Washington.

The subject of religious freedom, however, has turned him from bystander to activist. In a round-table session with reporters earlier this week at Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, Mr. Warren said he was compelled to speak out on the subject by developments in the U.S. and globally. He will begin a daily half-hour radio program in April, via Salem Communications' network of Christian stations (which includes Arlington-based WAVA-FM), to promote freedom and to encourage a country he calls "deeply discouraged" by the economy, a lack of public civility and other factors.

Warmly greeting each reporter with a hug — after asking permission — the pastor further ingratiated himself with the attending scribes by saying that he would have been a journalist if he had not had a call to the ministry. Now, he said, that call included an increased emphasis on religious freedom, which for Americans is guaranteed "in the first sentence of the first paragraph of the First Amendment" to the Constitution.

Eschewing a narrow definition of religious liberty as "freedom to worship," Mr. Warren asserted that freedom of religion means "the freedom to practice my faith and values and the freedom to convert," if one so desires. He quickly added that he believes in "conversion," via persuasion, and not "coercion," in the matter of religious choice: "It isn't faith if it's forced," he declared.

What is being forced, Mr. Warren and others argue, is compliance with what is being called a "government-imposed" religion. Rep. J. Randy Forbes, Virginia Republican, outlined some of those concerns in a Feb. 8 opinion piece for The Washington Times, citing a raft of federal and state decisions that he said single out those whose religious beliefs are at odds with prevailing societal attitudes. "When people of faith are restricted from fully participating in society ... an intolerable trade-off has occurred," the congressman argued.

Mr. Warren wants to stop that trade-off. Acknowledging Thomas Jefferson's famous Jan. 1, 1802, letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, pledging "a wall of separation between Church and State," Mr. Warren argued this passage was focused on the protection of churches, not their exclusion from public life. He cited a lesser-known Jefferson letter, written eight years later to the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church at New London, Conn., in which the nation's third president declared that "no provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority."

"Religion is far more than worship," Mr. Warren said. "It involves every area of my life. Religious freedom cannot be compartmentalized."

Ecumenical without being syncretistic, Mr. Warren said he would support the right of a Jewish- or Muslim-owned restaurant or meat market not to sell pork or other religiously proscribed items. He vowed to "picket" and "go to jail" with a rabbi protesting any compulsion for a store owner to violate his or her conscience in that way.

And despite his relationship with the president, Mr. Warren blasted the Obama administration's stand in the legal battle with private business owners and religious-affiliated institutions, such as schools, hospitals and social service agencies over funding for contraception and birth-control benefits in the new national health care law.

Asked whether such battles pale against the struggles of Christians overseas, who sometimes face death for their beliefs, Mr. Warren said both sets of challenges are related.

"Can we all agree on freedom?" he asked. "Can freedom be a unifying factor?"

Mark A. Kellner can be reached at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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