Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Melissa Rogers on Obama’s Outreach to White Evangelicals

Melissa Rogers, an attorney who formerly worked on church-state issues at the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, is now Visiting Professor of Religion and Public Policy at Wake Forest University Divinity School. Her personal blog is a wealth of news and thoughtful opinion on the intersection of religion and public policy in the U.S.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) needs less introduction, at least to U.S. readers. Currently the only African-American in the senate, he is a rising progressive star in the Democratic Party and many hope he will run for president in the U.S. With a Muslim father from Kenya and a Christian mother from Kansas, Obama grew up with an appreciation for the moral strengths of religious faiths and the difficulties of interfaith households, but without any personal faith. It wasn’t until after law school, as he worked on social problems in Chicago, that Obama became an adult convert to Christianity. (He is a member of Trinity United Church of Christ, a mostly-African-American congregation with a long history of work for social justice.) In his political rise to fame, Obama has been trying to teach Democrats and progressives how respect church-state separation without sounding hostile to religion.

Now, Obama has agreed to be on a panel on the AIDS crisis at a conference hosted by evangelical mega-pastor, Rick Warren. This has drawn negative comments from both some liberals (concerned that Obama might “pander” to the Right) and many more conservatives (angry at Obama’s moderately pro-choice views on abortion). Melissa Rogers seems to have a much more balanced view, in my opinion. White evangelicals still vote overwhelmingly Republican–a pattern that is NOT repeated by evangelicals outside the U.S. where far more diversity of political views exist among Christians of all theological persuasions. Even though more evangelicals voted Democratic this last election than in ’04, exit polls still showed 80% of white evangelicals voted Republican. This means that there is suspicion, hostility, and often misperception between white evangelicals and Democrats. I agree with Rogers that Obama’s attempts at serious dialogue could go a long way to address those issues–whether or not it results in many changed votes. I can’t speak for Conservatives angry at Obama’s appearance at this conference, but my fellow liberals and progressives should get a clue: This kind of outreach is exactly what many of the rest of you should be doing.

UPDATE: Because many people who read blogs don’t read the comments, I am putting this here. Jonathan Marlowe points out that Rick Warren also deserves praise for his risking the ire of fellow conservatives for hosting such a conference and inviting people from a range of views, including Obama. Melissa Rogers has praised Warren previously but was asked to write an article focusing on Obama’s outreach efforts. Although I have said good things about Warren’s recent risks for social justice and inclusion, they have not been on my blog, so it is important I say this here.

  • In general, I oppose the mega-church approach, whether the mega-church in question is conservative, like Warren’s Saddleback congregation, or liberal, such as Trinity UCC where Obama is a member. I do not think the kind of ekklesia and communal discipleship that is demanded by the New Testament can happen easily in mega-churches. For it to happen at all, they have to use small groups that become the de facto “church” for members. I would rather see churches start missions when they become too large to practice mutual accountability.
  • In particular, I have been very unimpressed by the “purpose driven” philosophy Warren promotes, although, unlike some, I do not see any great heresies here. Warren’s wrtitings along this line seem theologically shallow to me and what in them is of value could be found in many secular “self-help” gurus. This is neither heresy nor great wisdom to drool over–only Saddleback’s size has made them notable since American churches worship at the false idol of success.
  • So, starting with such a fairly low general opinion of Rick Warren, I have been all the more impressed by several of his recent stands for Christian social justice. Warren could have played it safe as a mega-church guru widely idolized by the Right. To his credit, he hasn’t. He has risked the ire of fellow conservatives recently by taking stands against U.S. torture policies, urged evangelicals to tackle catastrophic climate change, and worked with a range of others to tackle global hunger and poverty. This major conference on the AIDS pandemic, in which Warren included the arch-conservative Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) and the liberal Sen. Obama (D-IL)–both widely touted as possible ’08 presidential candidates, is a further attempt by Warren to lead his fellow conservative evangelicals beyond a narrow concentration on abortion and same-sex marriage as the only political issues addressed by Christian faith. Further, Warren’s inclusive invitation shows a strong desire to help Christians and the general U.S. public broaden public discourse beyond the “culture wars.” I am unlikely to ever want to be a member of Saddleback or its clones, but for all these moves, Rick Warren deserves very public praise–and this blog is overdue in giving it.

December 1, 2006 - Posted by | politics


  1. Michael, I’m running out the door, but I want to say a quick word of thanks to you for these kind words. As you know, I appreciate your work as well. I look forward to continuing our conversation.

    Comment by Melissa Rogers | December 1, 2006

  2. How about giving Rick Warren a little credit for reaching out to Obama, despite the fact that he knew he would catch a lot of flack from fellow evangelicals? Rick Warren also signed the statement against torture sponsored by the National Religioius Coalition against Torture, and has shown a serious commitment to be involved in AIDS ministry. I think he deserves some credit too.

    Comment by Jonathan | December 1, 2006

  3. I agree. I haven’t blogged it, yet, Jonathan, but I have said several places that I think Rick Warren has been showing great maturity and leadership far beyond what his early “purpose filled” stuff led me to expect. Just hosting this conference and then reaching out to as wide a constituency is a real credit to Rick Warren.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 2, 2006

  4. Jonathan, I too have praised Rick and Kay Warren on my blog for hosting this conference. I’ve also commended Rick Warren in the past for taking action on some of the other issues you mention.

    In the essay Michael flags, the assignment given to me by the news outlet was to assess Obama’s outreach to evangelicals as an overall matter. And I only had 500 words. So that will explain why I did not praise the Warrens in that particular piece.

    If you are interested, check out my blog for comments on the Warrens.

    Comment by Melissa Rogers | December 2, 2006

  5. Thanks to Jonathan and Michael for the additional comments on Rick Warren. I think I feel pretty much the same as you do about “Purpose Driven Church”, but I also agree that anyone who deliberately reaches out to those outside their “comfort-zone” is to be commended. Particularly as Warren has much to lose in doing so. I did not know anything about this and also want to applaud his actions.

    Comment by Anonymous | December 3, 2006

  6. Michael, I was wondering about this statement: “…how respect church-state separation without sounding hostile to religion”. Do you make much of a distinction between ‘rhetoric’ of hostility, the ‘intent’ of hostility, and perhaps an ‘effect’ of hostility that is neither linked to rhetoric nor intent? I suspect that the Democrats problem with the evangelicals is more than just a choice of rhetoric.

    Comment by Looney | December 3, 2006

  7. Interestingly, the website of Obama’s own Trinity United Church of Christ invites everyone to join them for Kwanzaa celebrations on December 27, but makes no mention whatsoever of Christmas.

    Peculiar, to say the least.

    Comment by Marty | December 23, 2006

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