Why Does Rick Warren Need to Defend His Interfaith Efforts with Muslims?

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Saddleback Church Pastor Rick Warren
It's called interfaith: different religious groups converging to recognize their common values and bridge the gap of misunderstandings, usually accompanied by tea and cookies.

But some groups have a difficult time doing it, unlike Saddleback Church, which is possibly the only evangelical gathering committed to interfaith work. An Orange County Register article from late February detailed the church's effort to build bridges with the local Muslim community; one of those efforts included an informal Bible study where Muslims and Christians drafted a document outlining the commonalities between the two religions. Anti-Saddleback evangelicals, whose numbers are legion, turned the outreach issue controversial, painting Rick Warren as little better than a closet Muslim. Purpose-Driven® Rick went on the offensive against the Register, whom he said got the story wrong.

In his response, Warren cited multiple errors, claiming Saddleback has no partnerships with mosques, isn't trying to evangelize among local Muslims, doesn't believe in the same God as Muslims, and hasn't gone halal in its cafeteria menu (the last one isn't true, but you get the point). Warren later claimed that a partnership is different from friendship, and of course, his whole mission is to evangelize all people and that the Register got its facts wrong about "King's Way"--the "theological document" with Muslims that got evangelicals all riled up. But nowhere in the Reg article is there evidence that "King's Way" suggests Muslims and Christians wanted to forge a new way of religion called 'Chrislam,' as some evangelicals had suggested.

How a document noting the similarities between Christianity and Islam sparked controversy among evangelicals and a furious backtrack by Warren is mind-boggling. Why Warren felt the need to rectify "misrepresentations" of his church's interfaith efforts adds to the confusion. That interfaith with any religious group in 21st-century America still needs justification is disheartening at best.

I heard Rick Warren speak at the 2008 Muslim Public Affairs Council convention. His speech was not very different from the sermons of imams I hear at Friday prayers in the mosque--thoughtful, emotional and uplifting. It was easy to understand why his church attracted many followers. There, I felt little difference between him and me, on a spiritual level at least.

His tone then differed from now, where he feels the need to clarify Saddleback's interfaith work to right-wing evangelicals. What's wrong with recognizing fundamental differences and forging mutual respect in light of that? Why are allegations that Warren is too Muslim-friendly given legitimacy? 

It's because of people like Warren that Muslims like me don't think that all Christians hate Muslims. It's people like him that make me think maybe not all evangelicals are nuts. And now, this. Et tu, Warren? You're better than this.

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