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

The Barack Obama-Rick Warren Fiasco

In case you are one of the few people (at least in the U.S.) who hasn’t heard, mega-church pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama.  It’s hard to tell who is angrier at the news:  For weeks a bored U.S. media has tried to claim that liberals and progressives (especially “the liberal blogosphere”) are angry over Obama’s cabinet choices.  The truth is that, while some of those choices have not made progressives happy (Gates as Sec. of Defense, Geithner as Treasury Secretary), the mood among liberals has not been one of anger, but of anxiety.  Progressives are nervous that Obama’s movements for change could be far less progressive than he seemed to claim in his campaign and far less than we would like to see.  But most of us are taking a wait and see attitude: He hasn’t even officially become president, yet.  If his policies are even reasonably progressive and successful, we’ll be happy. And none of us expects to get everything we want–and we know that the Bush years cannot be cleaned up overnight.  So, the media story of “angry liberals” is mostly fiction–until now.

Rick Warren, pastor of the huge mega-church, Saddleback Church, in Orange County, CA (and, nominally, at least, a Southern Baptist) has been a rising star of the Religious Right.  In ’04, he campaigned vigorously against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), saying that Christians should not care about the Iraq war (!). The only “values” for Christian voters should be opposition to legal abortion, opposition to gay rights, especially same-sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other “marriage like arrangements,” (which Warren compared to incest, bestiality, and child molestation), support for low taxes (??), and support for home schooling.  After the ’04 election, under his wife’s influence, Warren seemed to broaden his moral concerns to include preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS (Obama came to his church and spoke on this–with Warren receiving criticism for inviting a pro-choice politician to speak), the environment, racism, and stopping genocide in places like the Congo and, especially, Darfur (Warren wanted U.S. military intervention–though where we were to get the troops while stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, he never said!).

Because of his broadening agenda, people like my friend, ethicist Dave Gushee, began to list Warren as an “evangelical centrist,” rather than part of the evangelical right or left.  But Warren continued to prioritize making abortion illegal (even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother) and opposition to equal rights for LGBT persons.  He used his “Saddleback Forum” this past summer, asking both presidential candidates identical questions on live TV,  in a way that–temporarily, at least–helped John McCain by biased phrasing designed to restart the culture wars and shore up the Religious Right’s support for McCain.   (He also showed almost as little sensitivity as McCain to the plight of poor and working class people, suggesting that $250,000 annually did not make one rich!) That failed, but Saddleback and Warren were also major contributors to the successful campaign to pass California’s “Proposition 8” which rolled back the recent right to same-sex marriage in CA.  GLBT folks lost everywhere on November 4, the night that Obama won, and have been struggling to not feel excluded ever since–especially when Obama, who in other ways is the most gay-friendly president, yet, publicly shares Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage (though not to civil unions or domestic partnerships).

So, the GLBT community (and allies like myself) are among those who are furious with Obama for inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration–despite the fact that the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, an African-American United Methodist minister who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, is a progressive icon, and long a champion of gay rights in both society and church, is giving the benediction.  The aging Lowery is not as well known in recent years as Warren and many people tune out by the time of the benediction.  If the two prayers were reversed, many pro-gay folk might be willing to applaud Obama’s inclusivism rather than feel slapped in the face by the prominence of Warren in the program.

Progressive faith leaders are also hacked off.  Many of them risked much to help Obama get elected (I disapprove of campaigning by clergy for anyone!) or, at least, risked much in countering the many spurious smears of the Right toward Obama during the campaign.  They see Warren as a “friendlier James Dobson” and feel very slighted.

But not all the criticism of this move comes from the Left.  Pro-life groups are furious with Warren for ACCEPTING Obama’s invitation.  They believe Warren, in broadening his moral agenda, has been too lukewarm in his pro-life work recently.  “Pallin’ around with pro-abortionists” (as the governor of Alaska might phrase it) makes them furious.  Many in the Religious Right see Obama’s election as a moral disaster and for one of their own to pray at the inauguration is infuriating–a reaction similar to the one Billy Graham received in January of ’93 for participating in the inauguration of Pres. Bill Clinton.

What to make of all this?  Count me among those on the left who are angry at this choice–with some reservations.  On the one hand, I love the way Obama reaches out to his adversaries.  It is part of following Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies.  Throughout his public life, Obama has sought to engage those with whom he disagrees–and has pushed for progressives and Democrats to engage even conservative evangelicals, not glossing over differences, but seeking common ground. Bravo, Barack.

On the other hand, I understand those who say that Obama does better in reaching out to adversaries than to longtime friends and allies.  In the wake of the Proposition 8 (and similar measures in other states) triumph of anti-gay forces, Obama needed a strong symbolic move that told GLBT folk and allies that he had not forgotten them and still planned on advancing much of their agenda (if not pushing for marriage equality).  He has appointed one openly-gay cabinet member and it is widely believed that  another, William White (a retired officer who is currently head of the Intrepid Museum), leads consideration for Secretary of the Navy. (Never believe these things until they are official, however. Like many environmentalists, I was thrilled in finding that Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) was the leading pick for Secretary of the Interior–and, then, yesterday it went to Sen. Salazar (D-CO), who HAS been an environmental lawyer and has done some strong green moves, but whose record is far more mixed than Grijalva’s!)

There were lots of ways to reach out to Rick Warren without inviting him to give the invocation.  And Obama could have even selected another white evangelical equally opposed to same-sex marriage (but, like Obama himself, more liberal on other gay rights) who does not send the same “slap in the face” signal to GLBT folks that Warren does: e.g. Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Richard Mouw, or recently-fired NAE publicly policy chief, Richard Cizik, who now supports civil unions and is reconsidering same sex marriage.  Obama could have chosen David P. Gushee, who is very traditional on gay rights (but for whom this is not a major issue), but, who is the head of Evangelicals for Human Rights, a major part of the National Religious Coalition to Abolish Torture–which would send a very different signal than having Rick Warren deliver the invocation.

Like most progressives, I’ll get over this. Obama can hardly take back the invitation, now.  If he quickly reverses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on gays serving openly in the military ( a move now supported by most military leaders), sends Congress legislation to abolish the federal “Defense of Marriage Act,” etc., he’ll have the warm support of most GLBT folks and their allies like me.  But just as the victories for anti-gay legislation on November 4th introduced a sour note into the celebratory triumph of election night, the prominence of Rick Warren in the inauguration ceremonies dims the luster of a day that was supposed to usher in a new era of change.

I hope Obama learns how to continue to reach out to his adversaries, opponent, even enemies while, at the same time, doing better at not alienating friends and allies.  Yes, I am glad that Obama wants to get beyond the petty politics of revenge–the Bush years held far too much of that!  And, yes, I am glad that he has no plans to pander to the Left base of the Democratic Party the way that Bush (and the recent version of McCain) pandered to the Right base of the GOP.  But I just wish that it didn’t feel like progressives taken for granted by the incoming administration.  Say it isn’t so, Barack.

UPDATE:  Well, now the United Nations has just created a global treaty decriminalizing homosexuality, BUT THE U. S. HAS REFUSED TO SIGN! This, despite the fact that our very conservative Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that all “sodomy laws” (mostly outlawing same-sex acts, though some of those laws applied to heterosexuals–and even married couples) were unconstitutional.  So, Obama should act quickly to sign this in the new year.  It will be his actions rather than his symbols that define his presidency–but I still think inviting Warren was a mistake.

December 18, 2008 - Posted by | abortion, Christianity, civil liberties, evangelicals, GLBT issues, homosexuality, politics


  1. Meh.

    Tempest in a teapot. As I wrote on my blog, I’m mostly just surprised that people are surprised by the choice.

    Comment by Alan | December 18, 2008

  2. But most of us are taking a wait and see attitude: He hasn’t even officially become president, yet. If his policies are even reasonably progressive and successful, we’ll be happy.

    I’ll have to be honest: after eight years of Bush, I’ll be happy if Obama’s policies are merely not RE-gressive. Anything beyond that is cake.

    Comment by Dan Trabue | December 18, 2008

  3. Imagine the first African-American president actually inviting someone who believes that marriage is between a man and woman to give the invocation at his inaugaural. This is truly an outrage.

    Maybe Obama will publicly denounce the 70 percent of African-Americans who supported proposition 8. If not,then it will simply prove that Obama is also a homophobic bigot and will not side with the LGBT community.

    Comment by terry b | December 18, 2008

  4. […] Michael L. Westmoreland-White, who speaks from the left, expresses some anger because he sees Warren as someone whose views are opposed to those of many who made Barack […]

    Pingback by Threads from Henry’s Web » Dialogue with Those Who Agree | December 18, 2008

  5. […] III: Heh heh heh: “dims the luster of a day that was supposed to usher in a new era of […]

    Pingback by Rick Warren To Deliver Obama Invocation | novatownhall blog | December 18, 2008

  6. BHO realizes that he has to reach out to various groups ey cetera to make a real impact and to bring about real (not cosmetic)change in our country. This is wise strategy on his part !

    Comment by Paul | December 19, 2008

  7. Paul, I have nothing against reaching out–I’m all for it. But this is not reaching out to evangelicals, but rewarding a bigot. Would you tell a Jewish group, “Yes, I know we are starting the ceremony with a prayer by a neo-Nazi but it’s okay because a rabbi will give the benediction?”

    Warren’s constituents will NEVER vote for Obama, He gets NOTHING from them for including Warren–they’re furious at Warren for accepting the invite. But he could face protests from GLBT folks–who were devastated to lose on November 4th when everyone else won. And GLBT folk and allies have been here too many times. When Bill Clinton was inaugurated, GLBT folk celebrated. Rocker Melissa Etheridge chose that week to come out of the closet. Clinton had promised them that he would be on their side. Then he gave them “Don’t ask, Don’t Tell” for the military. And when the GOP-controlled Congress passed the horrible “Defense of Marriage Act” in ’96 (expecting that Clinton would veto it and they could campaign against him on this talking point), Clinton surprised everyone by signing the stupid DOMA–and won reelection. GLBT folk are tired of being the loyal constituency that keeps getting thrown under the bus–and they should be.

    Warren is a lose/lose strategy.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 19, 2008

  8. Actually from the commentary I’ve read, it doesn’t appear true that Warren fans are furious with either Warren or Obama. From what I’ve been reading, a large number of moderates seem to be thrilled that Warren be there to “minister” to Obama, heck I read a couple blogs in which people thought this might be a sign that Obama will change his mind on abortion. LOL Only the very rabidly anti-choice folks are furious — which is great because it just continues the split between the far, far right of the Republican party and the moderate middle. It makes the middle happy, and it pisses off the far right. What’s the downside?

    I don’t care who he invites, as long as he signs ENDA if it comes up in the next term. I don’t care who he invites for a 3 minute invocation that most people won’t even be listening to, if it means that LGBT folks will be holding important positions in the Obama administration (not clear if that’s going to happen yet. Certainly not Cabinet level, it seems, unfortunately.)

    But if people were banking on Obama being the next grand marshall of the DC gay pride parade, they simply were not paying attention to the campaign. He’s never been particularly pro-gay. But I’ll wager that the number of Rick Warrens in the Cabinet will be exactly zero.

    Comment by Alan | December 19, 2008

  9. Michael,

    As one of those progressives who endorsed Obama, I’m not thrilled, but I don’t see it as something to get exercised about. Obama isn’t President of Blue State America, he’s President of the United States of America. He has attended two Warren sponsored events, and while the McCain debate seemed stacked against him, he may feel like he owes Warren a debt of gratitude.

    Although Warren is conservative, his tone is not as harsh as the Dobsons of the world. In many ways he’s the new Billy Graham. Graham was conservative, friend to GOP presidents, but willing to cross the lines.

    So my word to fellow Progressives. Get over it. Move on! Let’s stop bickering and get to work building a new America.

    Comment by Bob Cornwall | December 19, 2008

  10. There were so many other evangelicals whose selection would have sent a different message, Bob. And, like you, I wish he had include a rabbi and an imam.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 19, 2008

  11. here’s Warren laughing at the charge that he is homophobic. i think he takes exactly the same position as David Gushee, but I’d like to hear your view.


    If warren is homophobic, does that make Gushee homophobic too?

    Comment by Jennifer | December 19, 2008

  12. BTW, too bad the civil rights icon, and supporter of gay marriage, Rev. Joseph Lowrey, who is giving the benediction, isn’t getting this sort of attention.

    Comment by Alan | December 19, 2008

  13. Michael, you said:

    But this is not reaching out to evangelicals, but rewarding a bigot.

    Michael, this is intolerance on your part, even as you suggest that Warren is intolerant. And I love how you are now reduced to calling people names. And let’s see who else you would consider a bigot – Tertulian? Cyprian? Eusebius? John Chrysostom? Martin Luther? All 2000 years of Christianity?

    If these men are bigots, then so is Jesus Christ, who gave us His Word, which clearly teaches that homosexuality is a sin. And this is testified to by 2000 years of Church History. Deep down you know this and the fact that you couldn’t prove your point conclusively in your series on GLBT and the Bible illustrates that clearly.

    Comment by D.R. Randle | December 19, 2008

  14. Too bad I didn’t vote for Hillary. Obama is not just pissing gays off. He is pissing off the mainstream christians that supported him. This is not change, this is more pandering to the right wing extreamist christian mega churches. I can not now celebrate Obama’s election.

    Comment by Carlin | December 19, 2008

  15. I think that the ethical and political concerns raised here are valid. However, since they’ve already been discussed, allow me to raise another, more trivial concern I have with the selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation: He’s not a very good preacher.

    Barack Obama has shown that he understands the power of words, of soaring rhetoric. Yet Warren – who has an undeniable genius for church structure, and has used that to both build and brand Saddleback, changing the way that many evangelical congregations I have been involved with conceive of how to be church – is simply not that good a preacher. He lacks poetry. His words are principally functional. His rhetoric does not move me. In terms of both depth/substance and style, he is barely adequate.

    While that may seem harsh, I don’t mean it as an insult so much as an observation. I’ve had to read several of his books, and watch his sermons on video, and can thus say that in my opinion his ministerial gifts are more organizational than oratorial.

    With one piece of music being performed by Aretha Franklin, and another being composed by John Williams and performed by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Gabriela Montero, and Anthony McGill, Warren’s selection – in addition to being ethically and politically problematic – strikes me as artistically being like having a third musical selection by the Bee Gees. Functional, sure. But sweeping? Soaring? Artistic? No. Simply popular.

    Everybody has an idea about who should have been chosen instead. It seems like second guessing Obama’s choices has become the latest Internet sport. But, what about honoring someone like Dr. Luther Smith, a minister in the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and Professor of Church and Community at Candler? He has been a tireless advocate for the rights of children, and also, as a part of the Pan-Methodist Commission has been deeply involved in the work of racial reconciliation. In addition to that, having heard him preach I can say that he can really string his words together, mixing the poetic and the prophetic.

    As for Rick Warren, well, he sure does know how to organize. But he’s not much of a preacher.

    Comment by Sandalstraps | December 20, 2008

  16. Not a good preacher, nor a good writer and a terrible exegete.

    Jennifer, Gushee (like far too many evangelicals) unfortunately opposes same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBT Christians called to ministry–although recent articles show that he, like Richard Cizik, is trying to re-think his position. This, as you say, is like Rick Warren’s view. But Gushee didn’t invest money and church prestige trying to pass Proposition 8. He doesn’t equate same-sex marriage with pedophilia, bestiality, or polygamy, as does Warren. Gushee’s focus is elsewhere–which is why I said that choosing him would not have sent the same “slap in the face” signal to the LGBT people and allies as Warren did.

    As for why nowhere near as much attention is being paid to Joseph Lowery, I think it is as I said: Lowery is simply no longer as famous as Warren. The domination of the secular media by the Religious Right means that idiots like Warren ARE the face of American Christianity for far too many.

    Randle knows that I disagree strongly that the Bible condemns all homosexual relationships–in the way that we understand them, today. In particular, Jesus either said NOTHING about this or, as has recently been suggested (see my series on GLBT folk in the church) may have given a clue to a more inclusive view. Randle’s asking about other figures in church history as bigots is ridiculous: They did not have the information about “homosexuality” that we do. And, in other ways, some were bigots: read Augustine or Chrysostom on women or slaves sometime.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 20, 2008

  17. Why give a man who teaches hatred, intolerance and exclusion such a place of honor at the inaugertion? Rick Warren isn’t just anti-gay (and he REALLY hates gays) he is anti-science, anti-reproductive rights, anti-jewish people, anti-steam cell research, etc. Obama may have permantly tarnished his message of hope and change with the craven grab at evengelical votes.

    Comment by Carlin | December 21, 2008

  18. Michael: So now you are saying that Rick Warren is an idiot? Must we resort to such name-calling? Besides, Michael, remember what you yourself said two years ago about Rick Warren: https://levellers.wordpress.com/2006/12/01/melissa-rogers-on-obamas-outreach-to-white-evangelicals/

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | December 21, 2008

  19. Jonathan, I didn’t call Warren an idiot, but a bigot, a terible exegete (have you read that Purpose Driven drivel?) and a poor preacher and writer. He’s quite smart at organizing and in business models, etc.

    I did praise Warren 2 years ago for the way he was reaching out beyond the comfort zone of the Religious Right. But I have since come to think that I was “punked.” I believe this seeming move to the center was simply to give himself “cover” for his extremist views–which have changed not at all.

    Obama could have avoided this by simply inviting Brian McClaren, Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, etc. to give the invocation. Most of them (I don’t know about McClaren) are also against same-sex marriage, but, as Carlin says, do not have such a reputation for REALLY HATING GAYS, and aren’t anti-science, etc. Carlin, I haven’t seen any evidence that Warren is against Jews. In fact, he seems to share the hyper-Christian Zionist views of too many U.S. evangelicals and be willing to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the actions of Israel against Palestinians (Christian as well as Muslim) and to treat all Palestinians as potential suicide bombers. Do you have documentation of Warren’s anti-Jewish views.

    However, I disagree that this will permanently taint Obama’s message of hope and change. It gives it, unfortunately, a black eye to start, but Obama will ultimately be judged on the results of his POLICIES–including his policies toward GLBT folk. If he reverses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and pushes a reversal of the Defense of Marriage Act through Congress along with the Employee Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) and enforces hate crime legislation, GLBT folk and allies will forgive him of Warren–and rank him better than any previous president on their issues.

    This is still a mistake. It means that Obama’s support from a key constituency is weakened just when he needs it strongest to push through much of his economic agenda, start ending two wars, and begin trying to reverse the legal mess that Bush created with torture, Gitmo, domestic spying, etc. I believe that Obama didn’t want to start off his administration tackling social issues such as GLBT rights–and the GLBT community would probably have been willing to wait awhile with the economy in the toilet. But now, he may have to act faster–and spent political capital he needs elsewhere.

    No, Jonathan, the idiot in this case was not Warren, but Obama–or whomever on his transition team was this tone-deaf.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 22, 2008

  20. “The domination of the secular media by the Religious Right means that idiots like Warren ARE the face of American Christianity for far too many.”

    Sure sounded to me like you were calling Warren an idiot. Hate to quibble with you, Michael, since I agree with you about 90% of the time.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | December 22, 2008

  21. Jonathan, I’m not infallible, but I have just read over my post and my replies in the comments 3 times and can’t find the quote you attribute to me. If I said it, I apologize. Warren isn’t an idiot for opposing same-sex civil marriage (just wrong), but he is for placing gays alongside pedophiles, rapists, polygamists, and those who practice bestiality. And Obama is not an idiot but has made an idiotic move in inviting Warren to give the invocation. He could have gone with so many other evangelicals without causing the same uproar.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 22, 2008

  22. Perhaps it would help if I quoted to you the entire paragraph? (from comment #16)

    As for why nowhere near as much attention is being paid to Joseph Lowery, I think it is as I said: Lowery is simply no longer as famous as Warren. The domination of the secular media by the Religious Right means that idiots like Warren ARE the face of American Christianity for far too many.

    The only reason I point this out is that I think it is evidence that you have some blind spots in analyzing this issue. Your great passion is understandable, but sometimes it can get in the way of sound thinking and clear analysis and even self-awareness. (I don’t pretend to be always innocent of this myself).

    For whatever it is worth, I also think Tony Campolo, Brian McLaren, or Jim Wallis would have been better choices.

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe | December 22, 2008

  23. Thanks, Jonathan. None of us, as you say, escape blindspots. My passion is informed by the pain of GLBT persons, many of whom I know. If Prop 8 (and the similar measures in FL, AZ and AR, but especially CA’s 8 because it took away rights which the courts had already declared that gays and lesbians possessed, whereas the others simply codified existing discriminations) hadn’t passed, I don’t think their anger over Warren would be as fierce. I am reacting to that–to the pain and anger of those who are simply TIRED of always being the group its OK to discriminate against and tired of always being told to settle for half a loaf, for SOME rights rather than EQUAL rights. I don’t blame them.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 23, 2008

  24. Obama did NOT appoint an openly gay cabinet member. Sutley got appointed to Chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality and I repeat, that is not a cabinet position.

    Neither is the Secretary of the Navy position that you referred to for William White. Just wrong on both counts.

    Comment by Tom | December 29, 2008

  25. Hey Michael, It’s not that we don’t understand the political reasons for picking fatass (rick warren) to say a little blessing for his administration. But can I ask you this? Do you think the people in the Obama camp really don’t think that the gay community is going to fight back after being sucker punched like this? Thousands and thousands of pastors who probably have the exact beliefs that Rick Warren does, but have not been all over youtube calling me a pedophile! This was a major confrontational decision. I think daring us to do something. It really should not have gone to this bad place. It is unfortunate that you will have people booing and hissing during a prayer at the most watched event in the last 20 years. I’m sad…

    Comment by Jon Johansen | January 4, 2009

  26. No, I think glbt folk WILL and SHOULD fight back.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 4, 2009

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