On its face, the invitation of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at President-elect Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony is a brilliant and savvy political move.
During the 2008 campaign, much was made of then-candidate Obama’s ability to potentially crack the longtime Republican hold on evangelical Christians. And while Obama’s performance among churchgoers did not turn out to be as significant as some anticipated, it was still sizeable enough to mark a meaningful stride for the Democrats. Obama bested John Kerry’s numbers by 5% among the percentage of weekly churchgoers, and by 4% among evangelicals (capturing 25% total).
If those evangelical numbers turn out to be a one-election thing, they can be dismissed as churchgoing voters merely following the trends of the general populace, considering that evangelicals had been reluctant to support John McCain from the beginning. To put the number in perspective, John McCain actually won a higher percentage of the self-reported gay, lesbian, and bisexual vote – a full 27% – so as you can see, Obama was starting with a rather low foundation. And Obama’s largest gains came among young evangelical voters, so there’s a question if generational politics outweighed faith here.
On the other hand, if 25% is not the ceiling but the new floor, and those numbers turn into a trend, it will be a very bad thing for Republicans, for whom churchgoing Christians have been an extremely reliable voting and volunteering constituency for more than a generation.
Unlike many of the activists, politicians, and media personalities on the social right who supported Proposition 8, Rick Warren is an actual church leader, with a unique and vibrant following at Saddleback and nationwide. A friendly, jovial presence who’s very in touch with the conversation of the times, he has been a leading voice supporting the idea that Christians should view politics through more than just the lens of hot-button issues like abortion and marriage. One of the kings of the skim latte Christianity otherwise called the seeker-church movement, Warren is a major advocate for inclusion and openness among evangelicals, and hasn’t been shy about breaking with other center-right faith leaders on political issues. He’s made global warming a significant issue for his church and is a signer of the Evangelical Climate Change initiative, and he fully supported moderate court appointee Harriet Miers when most social conservatives were attacking her full bore. He’s also called on evangelicals to learn from the example of mainline churches when it comes to arguing for public morality (or government expansion) on issues like poverty, racism, and social and economic justice, founding an international church initiative (P.E.A.C.E.) supported by the likes of U2’s Bono.
Warren’s basic views on salvation and faith – such as believing that you have to accept Jesus Christ as your savior to enter heaven – are hardly out of the mainstream of Christianity. His “Purpose Driven Life” message appeals to center-right and center-left churchgoing Christians who increasingly care just as much about the plight of the poor and the diseased as they do about the unborn. Warren in many respects embodies the new mainline church, espousing a welcoming faith that urges its members to go out and do for the betterment of their neighbors, not just proselytize. His flock should be the first target of a Democratic Party eager to expand into the ranks of the faithful.
It’s worth noting that Warren has been a huge supporter of funding for the AIDS crisis in Africa, and invited Obama – who he has called “an amazing man” and said talked of his potential to be a great President because he is a man of “good character” – to speak to an AIDS conference at his church, much to the chagrin of those on the right, several of whom criticized him for the invitation.
Now Obama’s returning the favor, giving Warren a prominent and gracious invitation, endeavoring to cement that 25% of evangelicals in his corner and building from there. But the uproar from the left – particularly those who support same-sex marriage and fought against Proposition 8 in California – has been fearsome and unrelenting. What’s more, one suspects it comes as a surprise to the Obama transition office – it shouldn’t be.
This is partly due to ignorance on the part of the activist left – Warren is no partisan, no Falwell or Robertson, nor are the many Christians who read his work. When you see this kind of pompous tone-deafness – arising from such people as the Huffington Post’s Linda Hirshman, who penned an unfunny satire of Warren in which he describes the holocaust as “the German effort to bring [the Jews] to Christian truth” – you understand why the Democrats still lost nearly 75% of evangelicals in this past election.
Yet it’s more than just ignorance here: it’s just the most public part of a comprehensive feeling of betrayal on the part of Obama’s vocally leftist supporters. They’ve already embraced the call of “Take Back Barack” – perhaps not realizing the eyebrow raising nature of such an ownership proposition – but was he ever really one of them to begin with? Is it that he escaped the left, or did he just become more honest, more forthright about what he believed all along
Obama said he opposed same-sex marriage consistently during the campaign (to use his formulation, while simultaneously opposing Proposition 8 in California in a rather token manner, calling it “unnecessary.” Irony of ironies, Obama’s own supporters made the difference on the issue at the ballot box, particularly African-American voters, who overwhelmingly supported Obama, but voted against same-sex marriage at a 70% clip.
“Betrayal!” shouts the left, as if they expect some sop to their issues after Proposition 8’s passage. But Obama made no promises of significance during the 2008 election either on gay rights or same-sex marriage policies to betray. He has been a far more traditional voice on family and cultural issues than John Kerry or Al Gore, and he’s smart enough to recognize that’s one of the reasons he won in November: he was acceptable enough to win a higher percentage of the faithful with inspiring rhetoric, while the social left just assumed he was one of them.
All of this makes the choice of Rick Warren, a figure who represents the Democrats’ best avenue to a permanent political majority, perfectly rational and politically wise. And it begs the question: who’s the real extremist here?