Appearing before a small group of journalists at a Pew Forum conference in May, bestselling preacher Rick Warren (The Purpose-Driven Life) presents himself as a working pastor with no aspirations to be a celebrity, who just happened to write a historic book: “When you write the best-selling book in the world for the last three years, that changes your life,” he confides in passing. He gets “a lot of invitations to speak” and turns down many. He has chosen to address our small group “because I only speak to influencers…. I read all of your stuff all the time,” he says in a hyperbolic appeal to our vanity. “Thank you for helping me grow.”

Of course, Warren himself exerts immeasurable influence, as pastor of a mega-church (Saddleback Church in Orange County, California) and author of the pre-eminent religious self-help book and its spinoffs, including The Purpose-Driven Church, Daily Inspiration for the Purpose-Driven Life and The Purpose-Driven Life Journal (consisting largely of blank pages with inspirational prompts). Warren has been fairly characterized as the leader of a “purpose-driven movement” (for a sense of its scope, check out Ten percent of America’s churches have engaged in “40 Days of Purpose” programs, Warren notes, which have “spread” to secular organizations, including sports teams and major corporations such as Ford, Wal-Mart and Coca-Cola, not to mention the military. According to the New York Times, a recent Air Force-sponsored “Spiritual Fitness Conference” offered US-based chaplains workshops based on the book.

The appeal of Warren’s simple, inspirational message (God loves us and has a purpose for us all) is impressive, but the proliferation of seminars, workshops and sequels based on a bestselling book is hardly unprecedented. Warren’s success follows the trajectory enjoyed in recent years by other inspirational, religious or spiritual self-help authors, like Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williams, John Bradshaw and Robert Bly. What distinguishes these mega-successes from books in the same genre that enjoy respectable sales at best is often not content but timing, marketing and luck (if not God’s will).

Warren and his supporters would likely disagree; in their view, what distinguishes him from other inspirational writers is his rejection of self-centeredness and the ethic of self-gratification (as well as his heralded decision to donate 90 percent of his royalties to the charitable work of his foundations and ministries). “This is not a self-help book,” Warren announces in the opening chapter of The Purpose-Driven Life, because it eschews belief in the primacy of the self and exhorts us to seek help and a sense of purpose from God: To discern your God-given purpose, study the Bible and focus on your relationship with Jesus. “If you don’t have such a relationship, I will later explain how to begin one,” Warren assures you.

His articles of faith and his anthropomorphic vision of God as Benevolent Despot are familiar: God loves us all and wants to be loved back. “God smiles when we love him supremely.” God also wants to be trusted, obeyed “wholeheartedly,” praised and thanked “continually.” He does not want to be challenged: “The Bible says, ‘What right have you, a human being, to cross-examine God?'” The usual incentives and disincentives prevail: Accept Jesus, on his terms, and be saved; reject him and suffer eternal damnation. Warren’s tone isn’t stern or scary: He focuses on the promise of salvation rather than its alternative, although he stresses that life is short.

We all share the same general purpose in life, Warren says: to glorify God. But God has given each of us particular gifts that will determine our particular path of service: “Because God loves variety and he wants us to be special, no single gift is given to everyone.” If you’re not happy with your gifts, take comfort in the knowledge that God knows best: “You should gratefully accept the way he has fashioned you.” Warren exhorts us to use our allegedly God-given gifts faithfully and energetically but, quoting the Apostle Paul, only within a divinely circumscribed arena: “Our goal is to stay within the boundaries of God’s plan for us.”

Like many religious tracts, The Purpose-Driven Life offers great comfort, notably the promise of eternal life, to people who feel like losers in this life, which may partly explain its success. If you’re poor, know that wealth can interfere with salvation: “Money has the greatest potential to replace God in your life.” If you feel weak, know that “God has never been impressed with strength or self-sufficiency. In fact, he is drawn to people who are weak and admit it.” If you feel inadequate, know that God “doesn’t want you to worry about or covet abilities you don’t have.” Remember that suffering is purposeful: “God never wastes a hurt!”

Like many mass-market self-help books, The Purpose-Driven Life is upbeat, at least as accessible as a junior high school text and replete with aphorisms and acronyms. (Your “custom combination of capabilities is called your SHAPE: Spiritual gifts, Heart, Abilities, Personality, Experience.”) Warren tells his readers how to use his book as “a guide to a 40-day spiritual journey.” His book is divided into forty chapters, and you’re supposed to read one per day. Each chapter ends helpfully with a simple “Point to Ponder,” a Bible “Verse to Remember” and a “Question to Consider.”

Do I sound like a snarky, secular elitist? Perhaps. Inspirational books are easily derided by those whom they leave uninspired. But both secularists and religious liberals should respect and fear the movement reflected by this book’s success. Warren looks forward to yet another Great Awakening in America (and perhaps the world) and even a Second Reformation, fueled partly by a new partnership between evangelical Protestants and Catholics. His optimism is not unfounded. The “Protestantization” of American Catholics, described by Alan Wolfe in The Transformation of American Religion, was demonstrated in the 2004 elections. Wolfe aptly admonishes liberals not to stereotype religious conservatives as close-minded extremists, noting that even conservative religious traditions are tempered by popular culture (the personal development movement, in particular, has had a marked effect across denominations). But if the absolute number of religious extremists in America is small, they enjoy disproportionate political power. That’s why Rick Santorum remains in the Senate leadership while Tom Daschle has retired to private life, having been successfully opposed by the Catholic Church.

Rick Warren has played an important role in our latest passion play. So far he has shunned the political stage and claims he wants to be a pastor, not a “policymaker”; but he expresses frustration that the usual suspects, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, are still considered leaders of the evangelical movement (at least by the mainstream press). He cites “egocentric leadership” as our “number two” global problem and seems poised to try providing an alternative model of “servant leadership.” Time has named him “America’s pastor,” he informs us, in the course of denying any interest in the title. Warren is mentioned as a successor to the ailing Billy Graham, and it’s not hard to imagine him modestly accepting the mantle of America’s leading evangelist.

What sort of leadership might Warren provide? He disassociates himself from the religious right, noting that he shares its position on social issues but doesn’t want to focus on them. He focuses on poverty, disease and aid to Africa. But if Warren is part of a “new leadership cohort,” as New York Times columnist David Brooks suggests, he sometimes sounds like a member of the old one. Lamenting the “tyranny of activist judges,” who obstruct the will of the majority, he evinces no understanding of minority rights or the judiciary’s role in enforcing them. Explaining his views about homosexuality and gay rights, he notes, “I don’t think that homosexuality is the worst sin,” and, “By the way, my wife and I had dinner at a gay couple’s home two weeks ago. So I’m not [a] homophobic guy, okay?”

Warren’s desire to avoid discussions of issues like abortion, stem cell research and gay rights seems genuine, and is obviously wise. His success derives in part from his focus on crusades that unite people–the alleviation of global poverty and disease. But his faith (like that of others) is inherently divisive. At the end of the day, God is a divider, not a uniter: Non-Christians, however devout, go to hell, along with nonbelievers, whom Warren regards, quite conventionally, as overcome by existential angst and essentially amoral. Without God, “life would have no purpose or meaning,” he asserts. “There would be no right or wrong.”

Whether or not another Great Awakening extends “meaning” and eternal life to the converted, it will have profound temporal ramifications for the rest of us (for whom the temporal realm continues to matter). Religious convictions, like other deeply held moral codes, provide both the courage to resist repression and the impulse to impose it. How will secularism and religious freedom fare if evangelical Christians become a predominant political force? What are the prospects of equal citizenship for those of us damned by our refusal to be born again in Christ? Should law reflect Christian notions of morality? Warren does not say.

If Warren’s desire to save souls is luminescent, his political aspirations and notions of liberty are unclear. America’s pastor says he is a pluralist, with apparent sincerity. But it is unrealistic to expect people who believe that salvation requires embracing Christ to accept secular laws and practices that defy what they consider His teachings. From their perspective, your liberty may be the least of what’s at stake. People who respect your right to go to hell may have little regard for laws that tempt their children to go with you.