Pastor Rick Warren Defends Invitation for Sen. Obama to Speak at Calif. Church

Famed pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren on Wednesday defended his invitation to Sen. Barack Obama to speak at his church despite objections from some evangelicals who oppose the Democrat's support for abortion rights.

Obama is one of nearly 60 speakers scheduled to address the second annual Global Summit on AIDS and the Church beginning Thursday at Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif.

Obama, who is mulling a run for president, plans to take an HIV test during his appearance Friday and encourage others to do the same. The Illinois Democrat will be joined by a potential 2008 White House rival -- Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas -- and is urging unity to fight AIDS despite differences on other issues.

Conservative evangelical Rob Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, e-mailed reporters Tuesday to protest the visit because of Obama's support of abortion rights. "Senator Obama's policies represent the antithesis of biblical ethics and morality, not to mention supreme American values," Schenck wrote.

Saddleback responded with a statement acknowledging "strong opposition" to Obama's participation. The church said participants were invited because of their knowledge of HIV/AIDS and that Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," opposes Obama's position on abortion and other issues.

"Our goal has been to put people together who normally won't even speak to each other," the Saddleback statement said. "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."

Obama declined an interview request. But in a statement, he said while he respects differing views on abortion, he hopes for unity "to honor the entirety of Christ's teachings by working to eradicate the scourge of AIDS, poverty and other challenges we all can agree must be met.

"It is that spirit which has allowed me to work together -- and pray together -- with some of my conservative colleagues in the Senate to make progress on a range of key issues facing America," Obama's said.

Brownback, who has close ties to conservative Christians, responded to the dispute with a statement also calling for unity. "To win the fight against AIDS we must each set aside our differences and join together as human beings from all political, religious, and nonreligious walks of life, fighting for the lives of people who are suffering and dying," he said.

Though still in his first term in the Senate, Obama has attracted national attention for his fresh face, commanding speaking style and compelling personal story. He also has encouraged liberals to engage in religious discourse and not leave the topic to conservatives to claim as their own.

While in California, Obama also plans a Friday night appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" to promote his best-selling book, "The Audacity of Hope."

As part of his consideration for a presidential run, Obama will make his first political visit to New Hampshire on Dec. 10 for a celebration of the state Democratic Party's victories in the congressional, gubernatorial and legislative races.

Obama has traveled to Iowa, site of the leadoff presidential caucuses, but New Hampshire hasn't been on his itinerary.

The race for the 2008 Democratic nomination is considered wide open, and at least a dozen potential contenders are weighing formal bids, including front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.