Now it has officially gone too far: Democrats, in their zeal to appear friendly to evangelical voters, have chosen celebrity preacher and best-selling author Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration.
There was no doubt that Obama, like every president before him, would pick a Christian minister to perform this sacred duty. But Obama had thousands of clergy to choose from, and the choice of Warren is not only a slap in the face to progressive ministers toiling on the front lines of advocacy and service but a bow to the continuing influence of the religious right in American politics. Warren vocally opposes gay marriage, does not believe in evolution, has compared abortion to the Holocaust and backed the assassination of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Warren has done a masterful job at marketing himself as a “new” kind of evangelical with a “broader agenda” than just fighting abortion rights and gay marriage. He dispatches members of his congregation to Africa to perform AIDS relief and has positioned himself as a great crusader for bringing his “purpose-driven” pabulum to the world.
Faith in Public Life, a nonprofit cultivated by the Center for American Progress, was so wowed by Warren that it co-sponsored a presidential forum in August at Warren’s Saddleback Church. There, his “broader agenda” included asking Obama whether he believed that life began at conception (which Warren believes, he says, based on the Bible, not science) and to ruminate on the nature of evil. (As for Pastor Rick, he believes the Bible dictates that the US government “punish evildoers,” as in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.)
Beneath the sheep’s clothing lurks a culture warrior wolf. After the Saddleback forum, he told the Wall Street Journal that the only difference between him and James Dobson was that of “tone.” After insisting that his agenda was “broad,” and holding himself out as an impartial arbiter of the forum, he declared that voting for a “Holocaust denier” (i.e., someone who is pro-choice) is a “deal-breaker” for many evangelicals. Obama was pressured to talk about “abortion reduction,” but Warren likens such rhetoric likening it to Schindler’s List: an attempt to save some lives but not end a “holocaust.”
In the world of the “broader agenda” evangelicals, when liberals advocate for gay marriage, they’re stoking the culture wars; when a “broader agenda” evangelical crusades against it, he’s merely upholding biblical standards. In that tradition, Warren in October implored his followers to vote for Proposition 8 because “there are about 2 percent of Americans are homosexual, gay, lesbian people. We should not let 2 percent of the population…change a definition of marriage that has been supported by every single culture and every single religion for 5,000 years.” Warren called opposition to gay marriage a “humanitarian issue” because “God created marriage for the purpose of family, love and procreation.”
Warren, a creationist, believes that homosexuality disproves evolution; he told CNN’s Larry King in 2005, “If Darwin was right, which is survival of the fittest then homosexuality would be a recessive gene because it doesn’t reproduce and you would think that over thousands of years that homosexuality would work itself out of the gene pool.”
Warren protests that he’s not a homophobe; it’s just that two dudes marrying, in his mind, is indistinguishable from an adult marrying a child, a brother marrying his sister, or polygamy. He thinks his AIDS relief efforts represent an elevated form of Christianity over those non-evangelical do-gooders whom he compares to “Marxists” because they’re more interested in good works than salvation. The rejection of the “social justice” gospel in favor of the salvation-focused evangelicalism that has come to dominate the definition of “Christian” lies at the heart of the religious right agenda to marginalize liberalism and harness its political power.
Warren represents the absolute worst of the Democrats’ religious outreach, a right-winger masquerading as a do-gooder anointed as the arbiter of what it means to be faithful. Obama’s religious outreach was intended, supposedly, to make religious voters more comfortable with him and feel included in the Democratic Party. But that outreach now has come at the expense of other people’s comfort and inclusion, at an event meant to mark a turning point away from divisive politics.