LONG BEACH, Calif. – Under fire for opposing gay marriage, influential evangelical pastor Rick Warren said Saturday that he loves Muslims, people of other religions, Republicans and Democrats, and he also loves "gays and straights."
The 54-year-old pastor and founder of Saddleback Church in Southern California told the crowd of 500 that it's unrealistic to expect everyone to agree on everything all the time.
"You don't have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand," said Warren.
Warren also defended President-elect Barack Obama's invitation that he give the invocation at the Jan. 20 inauguration in the keynote speech he delivered at the Muslim Public Affairs Council's annual convention in Long Beach.
Obama's choice of Warren earlier this week sparked outcry from gay rights and other liberal groups, who said choosing such an outspoken opponent of gay marriage was tantamount to endorsing bigotry.
"Three years ago I took enormous heat for inviting Barack Obama to my church because some of his views don't agree (with mine)," he said. "Now he's invited me."
Warren said he prays for the same things for Obama that he prays for himself: integrity, humility and generosity.
Obama defended his choice on Thursday, saying that he has also invited Joseph Lowery, a Methodist minister and civil rights leader who supports same-sex marriage and gay rights, to deliver the benediction.
"During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that's how it should be, because that's what America's about. That's part of the magic of this country ... we are diverse and noisy and opinionated," Obama said.
Toward the end of his speech on Saturday, Warren also talked about singer Melissa Ethridge, who performed earlier in the evening. Warren said the two had a "wonderful conversation" and that he is a huge fan who has all her albums.
The openly lesbian gay rights activist even agreed to sign her Christmas album for him, he said.
Warren gained a prominent role in the presidential election in August when he hosted the Civil Forum on the Presidency, a two-hour televised show in which he interviewed Obama and his Republican opponent John McCain for an hour each on faith and moral issues.
Warren has won kudos from some liberal quarters by focusing less on traditional conservative issues such as abortion and gay rights, and instead calling on evangelical leaders to devote more attention to eradicating poverty, fighting AIDS in Africa, expanding educational opportunity for the marginalized, and global warming.
But the preacher ignited the ire of many liberals when he publicly supported California's Proposition 8, which amended the state Constitution to ban gay marriage.
Although Warren has said that he has nothing personally against gays, he has condemned same-sex marriage.
"I have many gay friends. I've eaten dinner in gay homes. No church has probably done more for people with AIDS than Saddleback Church," he said in a recent interview with BeliefNet. But later in the interview, he compared the "redefinition of marriage" to include gay marriage to legitimizing incest, child abuse, and polygamy.
Warren founded Saddleback Church in 1980 in Lake Forest, about 65 miles southeast of Los Angeles. He is the author of numerous Christian books, including "The Purpose Driven Life," which has sold more than 20 million copies.
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