26 August 2005

A Purpose-Driven Nation?

By Alan Wolfe

It is one thing to help 25 million readers find purpose in their lives. It is another when one of those readers is the man responsible for ending what journalist Samantha Power has called "the most clear-cut case of genocide since the Holocaust." Paul Kagame, Rwanda's president, was so impressed by Rick Warren's best-selling book, "The Purpose-Driven Life," that he invited the founding preacher of California's Saddleback Church to come to his country. Mr. Warren not only accepted but asked his network of believers to come to Rwanda in small groups to plant churches, care for the sick, educate the citizenry and assist the poor.

Historians are likely to pinpoint Mr. Warren's trip to Rwanda as the moment when conservative evangelical Protestantism made questions of social justice central to its concerns. Given his huge wealthy Orange County congregation, Rick Warren could have become satisfied with his national success and ignored problems abroad. Instead he has chosen to make issues of global poverty central to his ministry and for that he deserves his identification by Time magazine as one of the most important evangelicals in America.

Because of Mr. Warren's efforts, significant numbers of American Christians will learn about the harsh realities outside their relatively comfortable lives. They will understand, as Mr. Warren himself did, that the world stood by as Rwandans massacred one another. They will learn what it means to raise children in a society that ranks near the very bottom of the United Nations Human Development Index. Some of them will understand that the transmission of AIDS has as much to do with gaps in public health as it does with personal morality. Every follower of Mr. Warren who goes to Rwanda is almost certain to return a better person. Rwandans as well will be better off, thanks to what will be history's single largest faith-based initiative.

Yet I confess to a certain disquiet about Mr. Warren's venture. I was with him the day he left for Rwanda. Together with the Rev. Peter Gomes of Harvard, we addressed the problem of evil at a panel discussion organized by the Aspen Institute in Colorado. Mr. Warren was his usual eloquent self. Yet after listening to him speak, I am not sure that he is fully prepared for the enormous task that he has set himself. Mr. Warren's message to the Aspen audience was similar to the one he offered Rwandans at Kigali's Amahoro Stadium in July: Spiritual emptiness allows evil acts to occur. If only evil were so simple. Many religious figures in Rwanda acted heroically in the face of genocide, but not all of them did. According to the U.N. indictment against him, Anglican Bishop Samuel Musabyimana did not want Tutsis killed in his archdiocese, so he asked that they be murdered elsewhere. Catholic nuns were even convicted by a war-crimes tribunal of participating in the slaughter. Belief in Christ by itself offers insufficient protection against evil. Mr. Warren should read Joseph Conrad or, if his tastes are more contemporary, Philip Caputo. There is also reason to worry about the missionary zeal that Mr. Warren brings to his campaign. Rwanda is a 95% Christian country. Yet because the majority of its population is Catholic, evangelical proselytizing could easily produce strife. And Mr. Warren wants to extend his efforts to other countries, including ones, such as Nigeria, where a precarious balance between Protestants, Catholics and Muslims could be easily upset by his style of saving souls.

Tackling Africa's problems inevitably means addressing questions of economics and politics. Is there a Christian position on export diversification, energy subsidies, currency convertibility ratios, agricultural overcultivation or civil-service reform? That Rick Warren is serious about overcoming Rwanda's poverty is unquestioned. That he and his volunteers have any expertise or interest in economics and politics is unlikely. My single greatest fear is that Mr. Warren and his followers will draw huge and enthusiastic crowds to their rallies, convert numerous souls to Christ and then leave when they discover that, for all their efforts, a country like Rwanda faces political and social problems beyond the reach of even the most earnest and popular humanitarian efforts. In short, there is a limit to the good that can be done until such countries alter the basic structure of their societies, eliminating corruption, curbing the abuse of power, setting up an independent judiciary and allowing a free press.

I do not believe that Rick Warren has a bad bone in his body. But I do believe that his remarkable enthusiasm is fueled by considerable naivete. It has taken centuries for Rwandans to descend into the hell in which they exist. Not even becoming a purpose-driven nation is likely to bring them to heaven anytime soon.

Mr. Wolfe is director of The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.