For inauguration prayer, Obama splits ticket
The clergy chosen by President-elect Barack Obama to pray at his inauguration fill separate symbolic roles: One is a nod to the civil rights activists who made Obama’s election possible. The other is an overture to conservative Christians who rankles some Obama supporters.
The Rev. Rick Warren, who will give the invocation, is the most influential pastor in the United States, and a choice that has already caused problems for Obama.
Warren is a Southern Baptist who holds traditional religious beliefs and endorsed California’s Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage. But he also wants to broaden the evangelical agenda to include fighting global warming, poverty and AIDS.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, 87, is considered the dean of the civil rights movement. For the benediction at the Jan. 20 swearing-in, he says he will pray that the “spirit of fellowship and oneness” at the inauguration endures throughout Obama’s presidency.
“He gets a lot with these choices,” said David Domke, author of “The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America.”
“Here’s a guy who wants to run a progressive administration getting a substantial lift in his wings from the nation’s most popular evangelical,” Domke said. “But he balances that with Joseph Lowery, who speaks to the more liberal, social justice and African-American heritage.”
By picking Warren, Obama is sending another signal, about his willingness to upset liberals by tilting to the center. Gay rights groups are demanding that Obama rescind the invitation because of Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage.
“By inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table,” Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a letter to the incoming president.
In a news conference Thursday, Obama said he is a “fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.” But he said he will build relationships with people of opposing views, and wants his inaugural to reflect that goal.
“That dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign’s been all about: That we’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere when we — where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans,” he said.
Warren praised Obama for “his courage to willingly take enormous heat from his base by inviting someone like me.”
“Hopefully, individuals passionately expressing opinions from the left and the right will recognize that both of us have shown a commitment to model civility in America,” Warren said in a statement Thursday night.
Lowery’s biography reads like a history of the civil rights movement.
As a young pastor in 1950s Alabama, he helped lead the Montgomery bus boycotts. With the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, Lowery created the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which anchored the national civil rights movement. In 1965, Lowery played a key role in the bloody, pivotal Selma-Montgomery March. He led a delegation of marchers presenting their demands to then-segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace.
Lowery, a Methodist, expanded his agenda in later years to fight poverty, stop violence and end apartheid. In 2006, he drew criticism — and a standing ovation — at Coretta Scott King’s funeral by condemning the Iraq war and poverty in the U.S. as Bush looked on.
Warren, 54, has become the most prominent clergyman of his generation.
His Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, Calif., has grown to more than 22,000 worshippers each week. His book, “The Purpose Driven Life” is one of the best-selling books in the world, with more than 30 million copies sold. He is mobilizing churches around the globe to fight poverty and illiteracy through his P.E.A.C.E coalition.
With Warren, “Obama shows he is willing to work with a new breed of evangelical and kind of move beyond the tired figures associated with the religious right,” said Randall Balmer, a Barnard College professor of religious history and author of “God in the White House.”
In August, Warren made headlines when he interviewed Obama and Republican rival Sen. John McCain, asking about issues important to conservative voters, including abortion, same-sex marriage and stem cell research. The public interviews were televised.
Earlier this month, in an interview with reporters from the Los Angeles Times, Obama answered a question about his current spiritual advisor by telling reporters he had found inspiration in a “prayer circle” of supportive clergy leaders who include Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Dallas-based mega-church the Potter’s House, the Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Warren.
Controversy Emerges Over Obama’s Choice of Inauguration Pastor, NPR, Dec. 18, 2008.
Rick Warren, Obama’s inauguration pastor, denies homophobia, Los Angeles Times, Top of the Ticket blog.
Dial it down a notch, President-elect Barack Obama tells gays
WASHINGTON – President-elect Barack Obama pushed back Thursday at gay rights groups trashing him for inviting evangelical Rev. Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration.
“It is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans,” Obama told reporters in Chicago.
But he noted that he ran a campaign promising to reach out to all sides.
“It is important for America to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues,” he said, noting that Warren invited him to speak at Saddleback Church in California knowing Obama disagreed with many conservative religious stances.
“That dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign has been all about,” Obama added. “We’re not gonna agree on every single issue. What we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable.
“That’s what America is about,” he continued. “Part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated.”
Pastor Rick in the Political Spotlight
Rev. Rick Warren is discovering that it’s hard to be both America’s Pastor and a Leader of Religious Conservatives.
Barack Obama’s selection of Mr. Warren to deliver the invocation at the inauguration has infuriated many Obama supporters — especially advocates of gay marriage — in part because of comments Mr. Warren made in a recent interview with me for Beliefnet and The Wall Street Journal.
The most controversial exchange was this:
Mr. Warren: I’m opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.
Beliefnet/WSJ: Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?
Mr. Warren: Oh, I do.
So on the one hand you have Mr. Warren, in effect, equating gay marriage to marriages based on incest, pedophilia and polygamy. But if you look at the whole exchange on gay issues — and, indeed, the entire interview — you see Mr. Warren trying in other ways to chart a moderate path.
He started by acknowledging that divorce is a much bigger threat to the American family than gay marriage — and chiding fellow conservatives for focusing on gay marriage more. He also said he supported civil partnership laws, a position which just got a top official fired from the National Association of Evangelicals. And later in the interview he said that Christianity has been harmed by religious conservatives focusing too much on politics.
At one point, Mr. Warren tried to describe an apolitical role for himself. I had asked him why, since he opposed torture, he hadn’t tried to convince President Bush to change his posture. At first he said he “never got the chance” — a somewhat implausible claim. Then he argued that he really intended to play more of a pastoral role, advising politicians on stress and family and their spiritual lives.
“They don’t need me to be a political advisor. I’m not a pundit. I’m not a politician and that’s why I don’t take sides,” Mr. Warren said. This is the Rev. Billy Graham model (at least later in Mr. Graham’s life).
Mr. Warren does have legitimate claim to being a powerfully influential spiritual leader. His “The Purpose Driven Life” is the best-selling non-fiction book in history. His decision to reverse-tithe — he keeps 10% and gives away 90% — is inspiring to many, forcing all of us to ask: Am I doing enough?
He spends much of his time cradling the most destitute children in the world and trying to convince American Christians — especially conservatives — to do more. He speaks about his faith with a sense of joy that is infectious and he acknowledges his own spiritual doubts in a way that gives permission to followers to cultivate an intellectually-honest spiritual journey.
But the problem is he also takes political positions with gusto. He’s vocally pro-life, supported the Proposition 8 ballot initiative in California, which outlawed gay marriage, and he’s made all sorts of other political statements, some insensitive. Just because he doesn’t formally endorse a candidate doesn’t mean he’s not political.