I’ve been out of every conceivable loop for the past few days, and now that I’m back I see that Rev. Rick Warren has done it again.

By “it,” I mean Warren has managed to tee off conservatives and Christians.

On Dec 15, America’s pastor was on CNN’s Situation Room to discuss his recently concluded AIDS conference. The conference featured 60 speakers, including Republican Senator Sam Brownback and Democrat Senator Barack Obama. The Brownback invitation was uncontroversial and generated no buzz. Obama is the media’s flavor of the month, but he’s also a hard left liberal if you go by his voting record. He’s every bit as liberal as Ted Kennedy, even if he’s nowhere near as annoying. Warren’s invitation to him was and remains controversial, because Obama’s voting record is so far to the left and therefore far out of step with Christians who look to Warren for leadership. And, those of us who don’t.

CNN’s Wolf Blitzer asked Warren his thoughts on Obama post AIDS conference. That’s when Warren did “it” again.

BLITZER: What did you think of Barack Obama?

WARREN: He’s an amazing man. I think…

BLITZER: Do you think he’s got it? In other words, he’s got that potential like so many other presidential prospects, to be the president of the United States?

WARREN: I think he does.

BLITZER: Because?

WARREN: I think he has good character. I think both Sam Brownback and Barack Obama — the reason I invited them both, first, they’ll tell you the truth. They’re not just going to beat around the bush. They’ll tell you what they believe. And I appreciate that.

Second, they’re men of civility. And I’m so tired of the rudeness we’ve got in our society where people are just mean to each other. We need to return to civility, which says, I treat you with respect even if I violently disagree with you. That we’ve lost the “civil” in civilization.

So being “amazing” and civil and of good character qualify one to lead the free world while it faces off against a militant and totalitarian ideology? It’s fair to say that we all want and desire a civil president who is of good character (even if in 1992 and 1996 a plurality voted for the exact opposite), but it’s loopy to say that those two qualities are enough to make the grade. Obama has no military experience, no foreign policy experience, no executive experience, and hasn’t even run a national political campaign. His biography is interesting, some might even call it amazing, but, at 44 years old and only a senator for two years, it’s far from complete. Obama seems like a decent enough guy, but the word “unqualified” should float behind him whenever anyone mentions him for the White House.

Maybe Warren’s just being nice. It’s possible. Elections do turn on issues, though, and after these comments it’s not as clear as it once was which issues and beliefs Warren sees as qualifiers and disqualifiers for the highest office in the land.

I’m actually not much bothered by what Warren said about Obama. On a scale of 10 it’s about a four. Warren didn’t come out and positively endorse Obama as his candidate in 2008. Warren just did what he usually does–say nice things that, after a little investigation, don’t add up and leave you wondering what Warren’s really up to.

Like his statements about Syria and North Korea, in the same interview with Wolf Blitzer.

At the top of the interview, in a little video intro Warren says of his trips to Syria and North Korea:

E.J. DIONNE, THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: I think what you’re seeing with Rick Warren is almost a new version, a 2006 version, of Billy Graham. SNOW: But unlike Graham, who’s always seen in suits, Warren is often dressed in Hawaiian shirts. Most people know him as the author of the best-selling book “The Purpose-Driven Life.” It sold some 20 million copies worldwide.

He’s taken his message around the globe, even traveling to controversial countries like Syria. This past summer he tried unsuccessfully to enter North Korea.

PASTOR RICK WARREN, AUTHOR, “THE PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE”: I’m always happy to be a back channel for peace. (emphasis added)

“…a back channel for peace.” Hang on to that comment. It’s fascinating. Generally, when you’re a “back channel for peace” to states that are more or less enemies of the US, you’re acting on behalf of the government to some extent or, like Jesse Jackson and Jimmy Carter tend to do, you’re conducting freelance foreign policy. Even if your trip is unofficial and off the books, you have a political dimension that you’re working, while you might also be working some other agenda.

Well, later on in the interview, Warren had this to say about the two trips to the two pariah states:

BLITZER: You’re ready to reach out to Kim Jong-il and North Korea to do what?

WARREN: Well, to preach the gospel. I’m a pastor, not a politician. And I report to a higher authority, where Jesus said, “Go into all the world, to every nation.”

Does that involve Syria? Yes. Does that involve North Korea? Yes. Does it involve Iran?

I’ll go anywhere as long as I’m not muzzled. Now, if they put restrictions on what I say, that’s a different issue. But I have a basic message that says you were made by God and for God, and until you understand that, life isn’t going to make sense.

And if I [don’t] get the opportunity to share that, then I don’t go — I don’t ever go into these places as a politician. I don’t go in as a diplomat. I don’t go in as trying to take a job that’s not my job. But if I get an opportunity to go in and bring hope, encouragement, and the message of the good news, I’m going to do it. (emphasis added)

A couple of things should leap out at you from these two exerpts. One, the “back channel for peace” has morphed into “I don’t ever go into these places as a politician. I don’t go in as a diplomat.” That doesn’t square up at all with the earlier line about his being happy to be a “back channel for peace.” So which is it? Blitzer wasn’t agile enough, or something, and didn’t ask Warren to make the ends meet.

It’s possible that Warren thinks he’s being a back channel for peace just by being an American and showing up in Pyongyang and Damascus and shaking hands with the monsters that rule there. But, isn’t that engaging in diplomacy and politics?

The second thing that should jump out is that Warren said that if he’s muzzled or isn’t allowed to preach when he goes to Syria and North Korea, he doesn’t go. Well, Warren is invited preach to 15,000 in North Korea next year. But in a country where millions subsist on grass and whatever they can dig up out of the dirt, just who will occupy the seats in that stadium? In a country run by a Communist personality cult, what sort of person will get the privilege of seeing and hearing the visiting pastor? In a country where real Christian evangelism will get you a ticket to a prison camp and where the government approves and monitors all churches and where the ultimate deity is that fellow with the poofy hair who walks around in the Dr. Evil suit, why might Warren have been singled out for the invitation to preach? Could it be because the visit’s propaganda value to Kim outweighs any threat Warren’s watered-down gospel might pose?

And in Syria, why is there no record of Warren having preached to anyone at all? The only thing we know about the Syria trip is that Warren got the go-ahead to ship in his PEACE Plan manuals and materials (minus the Purple Haze intro, no doubt), and that he lavished praise on the Assad regime. That would be the Assad regime that is right now helping Hezbollah re-arm for its next attempt to destroy Israel, and allows Syria to be the HQ for more terrorist groups than any other country on earth.

Is Syria a country that needs the gospel? You betcha. Is there any evidence that Rick Warren breathed a word of that gospel while he was in Syria? No. We do know that the one part of historical Christianity he did cite in defending his trip, he got completely wrong. Paul was not a Syrian, and it wouldn’t matter in today’s world even if he had been. It’s not at all out of bounds to wonder that if Warren got that basic fact wrong about one of the most famous Christians in history, what else does he get wrong? But that’s another topic for another time, and probably another venue.

Regarding Obama, Rick Warren has at least been consistent. He said nice things about Obama before and after the AIDS conference. Regarding his trips to North Korea and Syria, which I consider to be the more serious issues, Warren contradicts himself and may be lying about why he goes to those countries and what he does while he’s there.

Since my last posts about Warren, I’ve gotten a few emails from people who attend his church. One or two of them asked me not to continue writing about Warren, because it amounts to airing the church’s dirty laundry in public. That’s a fair point, but my response then and now is that I don’t post about Warren as long as he doesn’t stray into topics that I write about. I tend to write about politics, the war, sports, and occassionally pop culture (and I’ve been falling down on that last one–sorry, BSG fans). On this blog I don’t write very often about faith unless it intersects with politics or the war. Unfortunately, Warren’s words and actions keep bringing him back into the arena of things I write about. So I write about him.

If Rev. Warren or his supporters prefer him not to be criticized by bloggers who tend to write about politics, perhaps he should live up to what he says and actually stay out of politics.

By inviting politicians to speak at his church, and by visiting heads of state in Syria and North Korea if he goes there next year, Warren inserts himself into politics. And I write about it.