Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren appeared on "Piers Morgan Tonight" on Christmas Eve to talk about the importance of religion in America, and reminded the CNN host that former President George W. Bush used his faith to pass a monumental bill that helped people suffering from AIDS around the world.
Morgan began the interview by asking Warren about the recent poll statistics that show that one in every five Americans now identifies as non-religious. While America remains more religious than the U.K. and much of Europe, Morgan said the survey still shows a downward trend for churches in the U.S.
"I think there are three different factors," Warren offered. "The actual number of atheists in the country has pretty much remained the same since the 1950s, but there are definitely more vocal. That is true. Second, some of the polls out there are asking the wrong questions."
The California pastor referred to polls seeking to identify the number of Protestants in the country, but he said that few people these days describe themselves as Protestants, (which includes a number of different denominations within its spectrum), which might be skewing the results of such surveys.
The megachurch pastor also pointed out that in the past decade, the term "evangelical" has become more about politics, which has turned off a lot of people. "It got co-opted as a political term, and any time you do that, you are going to have divisions."
Morgan then talked about how vital the separation of church and state is, noting former President George W. Bush's evangelical faith and how he used it to turn the American conflict in the Middle East "almost into a holy war."
While Warren agreed with the importance of the separation of church and state, he said that Bush's faith also led him to make decisions that helped a great number of people.
"He also used his faith to authorize the greatest single health bill in history for people with AIDS – PEPFAR, which was the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. In the last 10 years, I've been in 164 countries. And I have people who say my husband is alive because of President Bush."
The President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR/Emergency Plan) was a program that ran from 2003 to 2008 under President Bush's leadership that pledged $15 billion in the global fight against AIDS and HIV.
PEPFAR was believed to be the largest commitment by any nation to combat a single disease internationally, and the program also helped people suffering from other diseases in affected countries.
During the 2008 World's AIDS day, Warren presented President Bush with the first "International Medal of PEACE" from the Global PEACE Coalition, recognizing his contribution to the fight against HIV/AIDS and other diseases, largely through his PEPFAR program.
Warren, along with his wife, Kay Warren, have for many years worked at the HIV/AIDS program at Saddleback Church and traveled to many countries in Africa where they have pushed for more awareness and dedication to stopping the spread of the disease and helping those currently suffering from HIV/AIDS.
"When Rick and I first got involved, we thought we were just two people; what could we possibly do against a pandemic?" Kay Warren has said, addressing the need for local churches to get involved in the initiative to fight AIDS. "But as we began to travel and learn about how HIV/AIDS is affecting different parts of the world, we realized that there was a very major piece of the fight that was missing – or at least under mobilized and underutilized – and that is the local church."
Rick Warren has called AIDS "the black plague of the 20th century," and in an interview with CBS News, said that President Bush is a "hero" in villages greatly affected by AIDS.
"This is good foreign policy. When you save somebody's life – they like you. And when you save an entire village – they are America's friends. It's far easier to save people through health care than it is to send soldiers there to battle an enemy. This is good public policy, this is good foreign policy. But the current administration has not shown the same commitment to AIDS. There is a lot of talk, but there is not action," Warren said, discussing current President Barack Obama's administration.
Obama, however, has expressed hopes that AIDS might be eradicated within the near future. The president said in a speech ahead of World AIDS day on Dec. 1 that his administration is on track on meeting treatment and prevention targets previously laid out, and are treating over 5 million people around the world with life-saving medicines for AIDS, which is projected to go up to 6 million people by the end of 2013.
"This year, we have also reached over 700,000 HIV-positive pregnant women with antiretroviral drugs that will prevent them from passing the virus to their children," Obama has said. "As we meet these new targets, we are joined by a growing number of countries and the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, who share our commitment to doing more so that more may live."