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Rick Warren: Pastor in the political spotlight

Rick Warren has been in the media spotlight for a decade — earning  praise for being willing to reach across both sides of the aisle and find common ground. But now he finds himself the target of criticism and controversy because of his position on gay marriage and the very public role he'll play in the first moments of President-elect Barack Obama’s new administration.

He's the most influential American pastor since Billy Graham — a blue-jeans and shirt-sleeves wearing phenomenon whose groundbreaking book, "The Purpose Driven Life," has sold 30 million copies — making it the best-selling book of all time, after the Bible.

Since the book's release in 2002, Rick Warren has gained a following as an evangelical who's willing to work with people of opposing viewpoints, but today he finds himself the target of criticism and controversy -- because of his position on gay marriage and the very public role he'll play at the dawn of President-elect Barack Obama's new administration.

For Warren, who takes pride in his reputation as a conciliator, it's an unexpected place to be. NBC's Ann Curry sat down with him two weeks ago for a wide-ranging interview on the same sex marriage controversy, his views on the economic crisis, and his relationship with political leaders, including President-elect Obama.

Ann Curry: So Barack Obama wins, you were disappointed or elated?

Rick Warren: I'm happy for Barack Obama to be the winner. I would have been happy for John McCain to be the winner. They're both friends. The Bible says pray for your president.

Ann Curry: Where is he, do you think, going to need a lot of prayer?

Rick Warren: The thing I'm praying for him and for all of our leaders are the three things I pray for myself— for integrity, for humility, and for generosity. Humility is being honest about your weaknesses.  And humility is being willing to listen.  And I think even in this transition period, we've seen how President-elect Obama has been willing to listen even to people who he disagrees with. That's a great sign of a great leader.

Ann Curry: It sounds as though you have tremendous hope for Barack Obama and his future as a president.  But, you know, he is pro-choice.

Rick Warren: Yeah.

Ann Curry: You are not. How can you admire and say you are a friend of a man who's been elected president who believes in basically what you believe to be murder?

Rick Warren: Because no president, no leader... I can't get my wife to agree with my on everything or my kids to agree with everything. To me the issue of life is extremely important to me. But what I’ve learned over the last probably 30 years is the president doesn't have as much power over that as everybody thinks he does because we've had pro-life presidents for years and years and years and nothing's changed.

But he still sees a role for himself offering guidance to those in public life.

Ann Curry: You know, Billy Graham had that same attitude.  He did it differently.  But he counseled many presidents, one after another on both sides of the aisle.

Rick Warren: They're still people. And they get hurt by criticism and everybody does that.  After “Purpose Driven Life” came out, they began to call me 'cause-- "I think that guy's safe." I don't ever talk about what I say to them.  It's all confidential.  And it's all really more encouragement on a personal level.

Recently he's been offering encouragement on an issue that's on American's minds this Christmas season— the economic crisis.

Rick Warren: 365 times in the Bible is a phrase used: "Fear not." 

Ann Curry: How can people not be afraid, reverend?

Rick Warren: It takes me back to the first Christmas.  Mary and Joseph had these exact same problems. They didn't have housing. There was no room at the inn. They had travel problems.  It was financially a tough time. They weren't wealthy. They were poor.

It's a lesson Warren's been teaching on the true meaning of the holiday, and he's turned it into a new book, "The Purpose of Christmas."

Rick Warren: God is saying, "I want you to get the message. You need to trust me. He's saying, 'I want you to relax.'"  You never know God is all you need until God's all you got.  

Ann Curry: So for the person who's sitting right now who's rolling his eyes or her eyes because he just lost his home, who doesn't know how he's gonna pay for his next meal, you say what?

Rick Warren: Well, first I say don't blame God because people will typically say, "Well, it must be God's will." Well, there's a word for that: baloney.

Yet Warren says the economy's sorry state does have a Biblical explanation:

Rick Warren: We walked away from God's principles.

Ann Curry: Which principle did we walk away from to cause this economic collapse?

Rick Warren: The Judeo-Christian principles that America was built on were principles like thrift, like delayed gratification.  Like you don't buy it until you can afford it. But we buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't even like. (laughter) And then when the chickens come to roost, we start to blame God for the economic problems. I think at this time we have to go back and say what matters most --- realize there's a purpose begind every problem and that sometimes what we think is a problem is actually a protection in our lives. 

Case in point, he says, in October, the Warrens' 25-year-old daughter-in-law, Jaime, was seven and a half months pregnant with her first child when she went into labor.

Rick Warren: So we thought that's a problem, a premature baby.  Then the baby turned out to be breached.

An emergency C-section saved the baby's life, but soon, Jaime was diagnosed with a large benign brain tumor. In November, she went through three delicate brain operations to remove it. And her father-in-law was left asking questions.

Rick Warren: [They're the] questions everybody asks: "Why me?  Why now?  Why this?" And those questions are unanswerable. You're never gonna get the answer on this side of eternity.

But Warren says he found that even these frightening episodes had a purpose... because the C-section delivery spared Jaime's life.

Rick Warren: If she had pushed, it would have killed her. So what we thought really was a negative-- God actually was using it to save her life. 

Earlier this month, at a World AIDS Day event, Pastor Rick Warren gave President Bush a medal for his efforts to end the AIDS epidemic in Africa. And President-elect Obama appeared via satellite at the same conference. In fact, many AIDS activists say Warren's efforts to fight the disease have been exemplary.

Warren has given away millions -- 90 percent of his income, he says -- in a worldwide effort to help end disease and poverty and promote reconciliation. But in the last two months, some of the goodwill Warren has generated across the social spectrum has been put to the test.

In a video released to church members just before Election Day, Warren urged his followers to vote for California's Proposition 8, which aimed to reverse a ruling by the California Supreme Court allowing same-sex marriage.

Warren says he joined the fray out of a concern if Proposition 8 wasn't passed, pastors would lose their right to preach about the Biblical definition of marriage. But many constitutional experts say that fear was totally unfounded and gay rights leaders saw Warren's stance as an infringement on their civil rights. 

After Proposition 8 passed, same-sex marriage supporters converged on the entrance to Warren's Saddleback Church.

This week, when President-elect Obama named Warren to deliver the opening prayer at the Inauguration, the controversy flared up again.  The president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign wrote a letter to Obama saying Warren's selection "tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table." 

Ann Curry: Some people in the gay community wonder why you supported Prop 8. Why you supported taking away their right to love each other in marriage.

Rick Warren: Yeah, well, I'm not taking away their right to love each other.

Ann Curry: In marriage.

Rick Warren: I am opposed to the redefinition of marriage.  First place, to me, it was free speech issue foremost of all.  First place, I don't know any church in America that's done more to help the gay community, particularly with AIDS, than Saddleback.

Ann Curry: And, in fact, gay people will say that is true.

Rick Warren: Yeah.  And my wife and I have given millions of dollars to help people--

Ann Curry: Which is why they're so hurt.

Rick Warren: Yeah.

Ann Curry: Why many gay people are so hurt because of their faith and and reverence for what you have done in this issue.  How have you reconciled yourself with that pain that you've caused because of that loss of faith in you?

Rick Warren: Well, because if that hadn't passed, the pain it would have caused to far millions more, I think, would be more severe.  And here's what I see in this, Ann.  For 5,000 years every single culture and every single religion has defined marriage as a man and a woman, not just Christianity [but also] Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism.

Ann Curry: Your position has raised the specter that you are homophobic.  (laughter by Warren) And that is why people are angry.  Gay people are angry.  And how is it possible for them to be civil when someone-- maybe deny-- you would say, "I don't like what you are."  You understand that.

Rick Warren: Yeah, I could give you 100 gay--

Ann Curry: Are you homophobic?

Rick Warren: Of course not. I've always treated them with respect when they come and wanna talk to me. I talk to them.  When the protesters came, we served them water and doughnuts.

But Warren says he's surprised by the hostile reaction of gay rights advocates.

Rick Warren: The hate speech against me is incendiary.

Ann Curry: So what happened to Mr. Reconciliation?

Rick Warren: Tolerance used to mean, "I treat you with respect even though we disagree."  Some people want tolerance to mean now that all ideas are equally valid. That's nonsense. There are some things that are right and there are some things that are wrong.

Ann Curry: If science finds that this is biological, indisputably, not something that can be explained in any other way except that people are born to be gay, would you change your position?

Rick Warren: No.  And the reason why--

Ann Curry: Why?

Rick Warren: I'd be happy to tell you why. The reason why is because it doesn't matter to me.  If it's biological, we'll be glad to know.  We all have biological predispositions.  Some people struggle with anger.  And other people say, "I don't struggle with anger, but I sure struggle with fear."  Some people say, "Oh, I don't struggle with this.  I struggle with being shy."

Ann Curry: You're saying if it's part of your biology, it's your job to struggle against it if, in fact, it's the wrong--

Rick Warren: Well, here what I'm saying. I've had many gay friends tell me, "Well, Rick, why shouldn't I have multiple sexual partners?  It's the natural thing to do." Well, just because it seems natural doesn't mean it's best for you or society. I'm naturally inclined to have sex with every beautiful woman I see.  But that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. And why should I reign in my natural impulses and you say, "Well, because I have natural impulses towards the same sex, I shouldn't have to reign them in." Well, I disagree.  I think that's part of maturity. I think it's part of delayed gratification.  I think it's part of character.

Warren says his opposition to same sex marriage is shared by a majority of Americans and by President-elect Obama —  and is based on Biblical teachings.

Rick Warren: God said in Genesis 1, a man and woman should cling to each other for life. Now I'm in favor of human rights for everybody...everybody. I'm against redefining marriage historically 5,000 years... because then it'll be re-defined. What if it's between a brother and a sister?

Ann Cury: You said that God says in the Bible that a man and a woman should cling to each other for life, but it does not say that a marriage is only between a man and a woman. In fact the Bible says that King Solomon had 700 wives. Leviticus speaks of homosexuality as being a sin, but also...  for eating fish without fins and getting a tattoo.

Rick Warren: The people that make that argument don't understand there are three kind kinds of law in the Bible that are very different. There's civil law, which is for the nation of Israel. There's ceremonial law, which is for the Jewish priesthood. And there is moral law, which is for everybody. The laws about eating fish and stuff, those are civil and ceremonial laws for Israel. No Christian follows those.

Unlike like many opponents of same sex marriage, though, Warren doesn't see it as a danger to heterosexual married couples. 

Rick Warren: I don't think gay marriage is any threat to marriage. So that's not why I'm voting the way I did. I think divorce is a bigger problem to marriage than anything else.

Thursday afternoon, the president-elect defended his choice of Warren at a news conference Thursday, saying "It is important for America to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues."

And Warren issued a statement saying, "I commend President-elect obama for his courage to willingly take enormous heat from his base by inviting someone like me, with whom he doesn't agree on every issue."

Despite the furor, Pastor Rick Warren remains the most influential evangelical in the country and his inspirational messages resonate with millions.