Progressive Revival

This week’s two major religion stories revolved around Rich and Rick–Rich Cizik and Rick Warren–and point out the uncomfortable but spiritually challenging direction President-elect Obama may be pushing religious communities with his post-partisan vision for America.

For more than a century, American Protestantism has been as divided as American politics.  Two camps–modernists and fundamentalists (a.k.a. “liberals” and “conservatives”)–have vied for the American soul, with each claiming to the most faithful and most biblical rendering of the Christian religion.  As a result, Protestant churches and denominations have often been as partisan as political parties, exacerbating larger cultural divides.

Enter Rich and Rick.  

Like the better-known Rick Warren, Rich Cizik is an evangelical.  In recent years, however, Cizik, a leader of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), has worked to broaden the political concerns in his tradition to include global warming, human trafficking, and the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals.  As a result, he has won the respect of many liberal religious leaders.  On December 2, Cizik gave an interview to NPR’s Terry Gross in which he confessed to have voted for Barack Obama and shared his own “shifting” feelings about gay and lesbian unions.  Conservative evangelicals were outraged and demanded Cizik’s resignation.  Earlier this week, he was ousted from his leadership position in the NAE.

Just a few days after the Rich Cizik furor, President-elect Obama invited Pastor Rick Warren, an evangelical mega-church minister, to offer the invocation at the upcoming inauguration.  In the last twenty-four hours, liberal religious groups and progressive bloggers have gone ballistic demanding that Obama withdraw the invitation to Warren.

I am not a Rick Warren fan.  For years, I have criticized him in both speeches and print and taken more than my share of grief for doing so.  I was very angry when–in the week before the election–Pastor Warren sent out a YouTube video instructing millions of his followers to vote against gay marriage in California.  And this isn’t the first time that Warren has dropped a last-minute election bomb in the political process.  In 2004, he sent out an email that in effect urged people to vote for George W. Bush on the weekend before the election.

However, Warren has also broadened a bit in recent years especially around issues of reducing global poverty and ending AIDS in Africa.  He has twice invited Barack Obama to his church and claims friendship with the President-elect.  As was clear in the candidates’ forum at Warren’s church, the two share some concerns while differing on other important issues.  As a result of their conversation, Obama invited Warren to pray at the Inauguration.

Obama seems determined to model his post-partisan vision–even in the first prayer that blesses his presidency.  A pro-choice Democrat with deep support in the LGBT community, Obama invited a pastor to pray for him not even knowing how that pastor may have voted.  Despite their differences, Obama respects Warren and the good will engendered by his prayer in the evangelical community.  This is a clear sign that President-elect Obama plans to invite all sorts of people to the table of change and is opening a door of hospitality for the American people to heal their religious and political divisions.  

The challenge for progressive religious people is this:  Will we continue to stand in the story of the modernist-fundamentalist rift, or will we accept the invitation to pray with those whose views may offend us?  Will we be like those who cast out Rich Cizik for the sake of communal purity or can we practice the inclusivity we preach?   

I don’t really want to pray with Rick Warren.  But being the post-partisan progressive pilgrim that I am, I am willing to accept President-elect Obama’s challenge that it may be good for the nation’s soul if I–if we–do.  It is a much better option than casting those with whom we disagree into the darkness.  We’ve had too much of that in the last eight years. 

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