Many have weighed in on Barack Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation during the presidential inauguration. But what has interested me most isn’t so much the controversy about the Lake Forest pastor and his homophobic thinking, but rather the pride I feel in his ascendancy to such a prominent stage. To have a local boy help out our president-elect tells me that Orange County Christianity has made it, and it’s about time.
The county is second probably only to Colorado Springs as a nexus point of American Christianity. It has four of the top 100 largest churches in the United States, according to Outreach magazine, including the largest non-English-language Christian church in the nation -- Anaheim’s SaRang Community Church. The world’s largest televangelical network, Trinity Broadcasting Network, broadcasts its founders, Paul and Jan Crouch, from their antebellum-esque studios in Costa Mesa. Drivers on the 5 Freeway in Garden Grove can make out the gleaming tower of the Crystal Cathedral, where the Rev. Robert Schuller tapes his “Hour of Power,” the most-watched Christian television show on Earth. Dotted across the United States are churches belonging to the Calvary Chapel movement, based in Santa Ana. Newport Beach billionaire Howard F. Ahmanson Jr. funds every flavor-of-the-month conservative Christian cause imaginable -- recent efforts include the Yes on Proposition 8 campaign and the schism in the Episcopal Church over the ordination of a gay bishop. And the current big boy on the block is Warren, head of Saddleback Church and whose book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” has sold millions of copies.
But Warren also represents Orange County Christianity at the crossroads. Previously, the county’s Christian leaders have only concentrated on tending to the saints and not much on secular affairs. Warren and his purpose-driven agenda represent a new style of theology, one that, like Orange County, can impart conservative heaven and hell.
The county has always featured its influential Christians. San Juan Capistrano, home to the self-proclaimed “Jewel of the Missions,” is where the cult of Father Junipero Serra reaches near-hagiographic status. Old accounts tell of holy rollers preaching to the pioneer masses in what is now Fountain Valley.
But it wasn’t until Charles E. Fuller began exploiting Mexican workers that local pastors began wielding a national influence. Fuller was an orange grower, and he used the fabulous profits reaped from groves in Placentia tended by those workers to establish Pasadena’s Fuller Theological Seminary in 1947 and “The Old Fashioned Revival Hour,” a pioneer radio effort to spread Jesus via technology.
A focus on saving people’s souls instead of improving their terrestrial lives has characterized Orange County Christianity for decades. Schuller founded the modern-day megachurch, telling the faithful, “Come as you are in the family car,” and crafting a self-help message perfect for pre-Vietnam America. Calvary Chapel founder Chuck Smith began saving hippies at Corona del Mar State Beach in the late 1960s, founding the “Jesus freak” movement and helping a generation repent after a decade of excess. And the Crouches’ prosperity gospel, in which poor folks donated millions to them and their pastors, who claimed that God would reward donors a hundredfold, set the stage for the ‘80s televangelist movement.
Considering this history, Warren is a welcome deviation. The opening to his book is absolutely revolutionary for Orange County: “It’s not about you.” Warren has differentiated himself by imploring followers to involve themselves in the matters of the world. He has focused on tackling big issues, such as AIDS and rebuilding Rwanda. Politicians have taken notice; it wasn’t surprising that Obama and John McCain shared the stage last summer at his church.
But Warren’s theology is not different -- Saddleback Church belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention, about as socially conservative a denomination as one can find. When Warren endorsed Proposition 8 last year, and seemingly endorsed bombing Iran when he told Sean Hannity that it was fine to punish “evildoers,” he shed his sheep’s clothing and bared the conservative fangs long associated with Orange County, much to the detriment of his ecumenical standing.
If Warren truly wants to become “America’s pastor,” he’ll scale back on such bombastic rhetoric. Warren has the chance to redeem Orange County as a place not of avarice but of altruism, and to show that evangelical Christianity can come free of politicking and show genuine concern for all. I’m praying for you, Rick, to consider my words and help lead us to a better future, damn the differences.
Gustavo Arellano is a contributing editor to Opinion and the author of “Orange County: A Personal History.”