The announcement that Pastor Rick Warren has been chosen to give the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony landed with a thud in my inbox. Many people who know Warren as the affable megachurch pastor and best-selling author may be confused about the anger and disappointment that his selection has generated among progressive activists who worked so hard to help elect Obama. Here’s my explanation; you can find plenty of other voices online.
Warren enjoys a reputation as a bridge-building moderate based on his informal style and his church’s engagement on issues like AIDS in Africa. He took grief from some of his Religious Right colleagues when he invited then-Senator Obama to his church for a conference on AIDS a couple of years ago. And, in August he hosted presidential candidates Obama and McCain at his church.
But Warren has never been as far from traditional Religious Right leaders as his carefully cultivated public personality would suggest. In an email sent before the 2004 election he wrote a Falwell-esque email proclaiming that, for Christian voters, the issues of abortion, marriage for same-sex couples, stem cell research, cloning and euthanasia were "non-negotiable." In fact, he said, they are "not even debatable because God’s word is clear on these issues."
And while some Religious Right leaders were nervous that Warren would give Obama a platform to talk about poverty and the environment at the August event, Warren thrilled them by eschewing those issues entirely in order to emphasize issues like abortion and marriage that worked to McCain’s advantage with the evangelical audience. After the forum, Warren was dismissive of Democratic Party outreach to evangelicals, and to evangelicals who are aligned with Democrats.
Warren also campaigned for Proposition 8, the initiative that stripped same-sex couples in California of their right under the state constitution to get legally married. But it’s not just his support for Prop. 8 and the dishonest campaign on its behalf that is so galling to equality activists. It’s that Warren has since equated loving same sex couples seeking to get married with incest and pedophilia. And he has repeated one of the Religious Right’s big lies: that somehow allowing marriage equality to stand would have threatened the freedom of preachers like him to say what they thought about homosexuality. That’s not remotely true, but it’s a standard tool of Religious Right leaders trying to resist the public’s increasing support for equality.
In other words, Warren has been divisive and dishonest on the issues of marriage equality and religious freedom. And on other issues important to many Obama supporters, as well. He adamantly opposes a woman’s legal right to abortion and dismisses common-ground efforts to reduce the need for abortion by comparing them to accommodating the Holocaust. He is disrespectful of progressive people of faith, suggesting that they are tools of the Democratic Party or more Marxist than Christian. So much for the values of unity and respect, not to mention the constitutional principle of equality, on which President-elect Obama campaigned.
Why exactly is he being given the high honor of delivering the invocation at one of the most historic ceremonies in American history?
There is no shortage of religious leaders who reflect the values on which President-elect Obama campaigned and who are working to advance the common good. Rev. Joseph Lowery, who has been selected to give the benediction, is a lifelong advocate for justice. There are others like him, and in our increasingly diverse nation, they aren’t all Christian.
Rick Warren gets plenty of attention through his books and media appearances. He doesn’t need or deserve a position of honor at the inauguration of a president who has given hope to so many Americans by rejecting the politics of division and emphasizing his commitment to constitutional values.
I am still excited about the tremendous changes in policy that I expect under an Obama administration. But it’s the job of progressive advocates to hold public officials accountable, and to speak up even when our friends drop the ball. This decision, which will leave a bad taste in the mouth of many passionate supporters of Barack Obama, is one of those times.