Barack Obama has just asked Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inauguration.
This will no doubt cause serious consternation among many Obama supporters. After the Beliefnet/Wall Street Journal interview with him, Warren has been sharply criticized for his views on gay rights, torture and other issues. Andrew Sullivan picked apart Warren’s claim that he’d supported Prop 8 in California (banning gay marriage) as a free speech issue. Paul Raushenbush took issue with Warren’s claim that “social gospel” Christians were closet Marxists.
I myself have described areas where I think Warren skirted issues or lacked self-awareness. He has, for instance, talked about the need for civil discussion on culture war issues but in our chat he equated gay marriage to incest and pedophilia. His claim that he opposed torture but never tried to influence President Bush because the he’d never had the opportunity, seemed like a stretch.
Now, I’d like to explain why — despite some areas of disagreement — I respect Warren and believe he has earned his status at the top of the evangelical heap, and why it was a smart move for Obama to ask him to deliver the invocation at the inauguration.
First, Warren has used his fame and fortune primarily to help the most destitute people in the world. He reverse tithes, giving away 90% and keeping 10%. Please contemplate all the religious figures who have gotten rich off their flock and pocketed the money. Who among you reverse tithe or would if you were rich? I know I don’t, and every time I think about what Warren has done it makes me question whether I’m giving enough. That is a Christ-like example.
Second, he’s worked hard to get other conservative evangelicals to care more about poverty. Some on the left had hopes that Warren would somehow move evangelicals to the left on social issues. They were confusing temperamental with political moderation. Just because Warren is a nice guy, greets you with a hug, used to wear Hawaiian shirts, and cares about the poor, doesn’t mean he’s a political liberal or even moderate. He’s not. But it’s in part because he’s conservative on everything else that his views on poverty carry such weight in the evangelical community.
Third, he has voiced his own spiritual doubts. This is hugely important. So many religious leaders view expressions of doubt as signs of weakness at best and heresy at worst. By admitting his own doubts, and explaining how he worked through them, Warren gives permission to the rest of us to have an intellectually honest spiritual journey.
Finally, he’s mostly about God. Yes, he says things that are controversial and, I believe, is sometimes ill-informed and insensitive. But the Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose of Christmas barely mention the hot-botton culture war issues. He has his views on those issues but really believes that getting right with God is most important thing.
For Obama, picking Warren for the inauguration is a smart move. George W. Bush chose Franklin Graham, a hard-right evangelical to do his prayer. Instead of retaliating by choosing a liberal preacher, Obama opted for spiritual bipartisanship. The move helps to depoliticize prayer — which, of course, is very politically shrewd.
Click here for the full transcript of the Warren interview
Click here for video of the interview
UPDATE: Angry reaction from Andrew Sullivan (“Ugh”), People for the American Way (“A grave disappointment”), Right Wing Watch (“just a friendlier version of James Dobson”) and Atrios (“[Obama] Wanker of the Day”
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About Steve Waldman
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