The Rick Warren Choice: Offensive, Foolish, or Just Uninspired?

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From TIME’s Amy Sullivan:

Liberals are furious with Obama for asking mega-church pastor and evangelical Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his Inauguration. Conservatives are furious with Warren for accepting the invitation (just as they savaged him two years ago when he invited Obama to speak at his annual HIV/AIDS conference). But amid all the shouting about how “controversial” the selection is and what a “slap in the face” it represents to various Democratic constituencies, no one has mentioned what a, well, boring choice Warren is.

(Yes, sharp-eyed readers will notice TIME selected Warren as one of our People Who Mattered for 2008. I thought that was rather uninspired as well.)

The Obama folks needed to pick two religious leaders for the Inaugural Ceremony — one to give the invocation and the other the benediction. They had already decided they wanted one to be an African-American preacher and the other a white Evangelical. Why an Evangelical, given that Evangelicals didn’t exactly surge over to the Democratic side on Election Day? One guess is that maybe Obama meant it when he said in his victory speech (and again in this morning’s press conference): “I will listen to you, especially when we disagree.”

The main problem is that Warren, while a Big Deal in the religion world, has lately been much more interested in being a Big Deal than in actually trying to lead a new Evangelical movement. If Obama wanted a truly interesting and visionary white Evangelical, he had better choices (although not all of them would have passed a pro-gay marriage litmus test): Bill Hybels or Tony Campolo or Joel Hunter or Brian McLaren or Leith Anderson.

Any one of them would also have the added value of not being someone who recently called for the assassination of the president of Iran or who isn’t confused about whether laws allowing gay marriage would place restrictions on what religious leaders can say from the pulpit. Nor do they have Warren’s distinction of first embracing Obama and then kicking him after the Saddleback Forum when it seemed like the Democrats’ fortunes were fading.

Still, to the vast majority of Americans — including the tens of millions who have bought his books — Warren is the most prominent Evangelical not named “Graham.” Four years ago, Democrats didn’t even know who he was. When Terry McAuliffe was introduced to Warren in the summer of 2004, they shook hands and McAuliffe said, “Nice to meet you, Rick. And what do you do?” It won’t hurt Obama’s efforts to show he can reach beyond the universe of Democratic voters to include such a major Evangelical figure in his Inauguration ceremony.

Obama’s selection of Warren also has to be viewed in tandem with his other pick: Joseph Lowery. The founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is nothing if not a gutsy choice. He’s a rare African-American minister who has been outspoken in his support of gay marriage. And Lowery is about as feisty as you can get this side of Jeremiah Wright. Two years ago, he spoke before Obama at a church in Selma with a fantastic riff on what “good crazy” is. Watch Obama’s face, particularly at the beginning of the clip, while Lowery talks about preaching in Father Flager’s church and praying for Louis Farrakhan. That’s the kind of stuff that enrages conservatives just as much as Warren’s recent comments enrage liberals. You can very clearly see Obama thinking, “This dude could get me in trouble.”  They may both get him in some trouble, but only one was an inspired choice.