Church leaders and pro-life groups expressed distress and opposition to megachurch pastor Rick Warren's welcoming of Senator Barack Obama, D-Ill., to his church this week.
Obama, who supports abortion, is one of nearly 60 speakers at the second annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The potential 2008 presidential candidate will also be taking an HIV test on World AIDS Day at the conference.
Obama's inclusion in the summit roused indignant reactions from pro-life advocates who staunchly oppose the senator's policies. Such groups as American Life League, the American Family Association, Christian Action for the Preborn and Mission America called Warren to "rescind his invitation" to Obama immediately.
"The name of the seminar at which Senator Obama will be appearing is entitled, 'We Must Work Together,'" said a statement signed by 18 pro-life groups. "No, Mr. Warren, Mr. Obama, we will never work with those who can support the murder of babies in the womb."
Aware of the strong opposition to Obama participating in the summit, Saddleback Church released a statement Tuesday stressing that the speakers at the summit "do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of Saddleback Church, its pastoral leadership or any of the other speakers."
"We're not making an endorsement of Obama or any of the other speakers," continued the statement. "Rather by coming to Saddleback, the Summit speakers are affirming and supporting the vital role of the Church in fighting the pandemic of HIV/AIDS."
Warren responded to a blogger who claimed he invited Obama to preach in his pulpit to the Saddleback congregation.
"Of course that is untrue," said Warren in an e-mail Saturday to the Purpose Driven Network. "I'd never invite any politician to speak from the pulpit to our congregation. Never."
Receptionists at Saddleback had received "rude and vicious" calls from people complaining about the claimed invitation.
The church, with an average attendance of 22,000 people each weekend, made clear that Obama is not speaking to the Saddleback congregation, but rather to a conference comprised of ministry leaders, social workers and health professionals on the topic of HIV/AIDS only.
And on the issue of abortion, the church statement said, "Let it be made very clear that Pastor Warren and Saddleback Church completely disagree with Obama's views on abortion and other positions he has taken, and have told him so in a public meeting on Capitol Hill."
While ministers and pro-life groups disagree with Obama working with the Evangelical church, Saddleback stated that its goal has been "to put people together who normally won't even speak to each other."
"We do not expect all participants in the Summit discussion to agree with all of our Evangelical beliefs. However, the HIV/AIDS pandemic cannot be fought by Evangelicals alone. It will take the cooperation of all government, business, NGOs and the church. That is the purpose of this Summit."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who will be taking an HIV test with Obama, had expressed similar thoughts of cooperation behind a humanitarian crisis that is reported as the worst in the world.
"I think you are seeing the beginning of a great coming together on the left and right dealing with Africa," he said, alluding to the continent's AIDS epidemic and social and economic problems, according to The Associated Press.
The first AIDS Summit in 2005 marked a milestone for Evangelicals as it kicked off a global mobilization of the Church for HIV/AIDS. Rick and Kay Warren were joined by Bill and Lynne Hybels last year to wake up the Church to the global crisis.
The Summit is sponsored by the Purpose Driven Network and Saddleback Valley Community Church. As of Monday, the AIDS Summit had more than 1,700 people registered to attend. The two-day Summit begins Thursday.