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December 23, 2008

Rick Warren and Obama’s Continued Pastor Problems


As the past week has made clear, it might be time for Barack Obama to steer altogether clear of pastors. For a politician who rode a nearly mistake-free run all the way to the White House, it seems preachers – regardless of their race, denomination or political hue – are his Kryptonite. Call it a good argument for separation of church and state.

After the Jeremiah Wright fiasco, the president-elect found himself at the center of another clergy-centric controversy last week, when it became public that he had invited Pastor Rick Warren – the leader of California's Saddleback Church, author of The Purpose-Driven Life and one of the nation's leading evangelical pastors – to give the invocation at his inauguration next month.

This decision has led to big-time hand-wringing from some segments of the left, whether from gay rights and abortion activists upset with Warren's very hard-right statements on both in the past, to secular types who object to any religious content in politics, to general liberals who are wary of any sort of compromise whatsoever with the traditional right. Others, meanwhile, have asked how Obama can revisit Warren, when the summertime "Saddleback Forum," moderated by the pastor, was one the low moments of his campaign. 

Had it been up to me, Warren would not have been invited. I certainly disagree with and find abhorrent many, many things that he has said in the past, and I especially understand how members of Obama's coalition might object to the decision, especially so soon after Warren played a major role in the passing of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California.

Despite all this, I'm not convinced this is the biggest deal ever, and it may even be a shrewd political move on Obama's part.

First of all, it's only a prayer. Warren is not being given an administration job or a policy role. Had Warren or someone with his views on abortion or gay rights been named, say, Secretary of Health and Human Services or White House domestic policy advisor, then I may have joined the calls of outrage. But all Warren is doing is saying a brief prayer. The inauguration will be an historic day, and Warren's appearance will almost certainly not be more than a footnote.

Not to mention, Warren is a very different figure than, say, Pat Robertson or other evangelical leaders who have engaged in politics in the past. For one, he's not a pure Republican party hack, tailoring his message to the electoral needs of the GOP. In addition, Warren's message has been focused on issues far afield from culture-war political issues, such as poverty and AIDS in Africa.

Also, as Alan Wolfe eloquently put it in the New Republic last week, the fact that the nation's leading evangelical Christian pastor is agreeing to appear at the inauguration of a liberal, pro-choice, pro-gay-rights, Democratic president is a much, much bigger deal than it was for Obama to invite him. Indeed, Warren was criticized by some on his own side earlier this year when Obama appeared at his church.

And besides, does anyone really believe that Obama's invitation of Warren is his way of telling us that he's ready to ditch social liberalism altogether? Nothing he's ever said or done has indicated that.

That Barack Obama knows and has had communication with both Jeremiah Wright and Rick Warren should not be seen as an indication that he agrees with those with radical political views, both on the left and the right. After all, who believes both? Instead, see him as a president willing to listen to wildly divergent views, and make up his mind based on a myriad of different influences. After eight years of often dead-wrong certainty in the White House, isn't that what America needs?


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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