Purpose-driven symbolic gesture

55505654Believe it or not, I don’t have a whole lot to say about the mini-media flap about President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to ask his best evangelical buddy, that would be the Rev. Rick Warren, to offer the invocation on Jan. 20. Just imagine what the coverage will be like if Warren utters the J-word or prays that American will work for justice for all, born and unborn or something like that.

The press coverage has focused on anger on the secular and lifestyle left, as you would expect. Behind the scenes, you know that there are evangelical activists who are steamed, as well. You may want to keep your eye on The Brody File over at CBN.

Obama has defended the decision by playing the diversity card, saying that this is part of his efforts to dialogue with those who disagree with him in an atmosphere of respect. Here’s some sample coverage at the Washington Post:

“I am a fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on and something that I intend to continue to be consistent on in my presidency,” Obama said at a morning news conference to announce several financial appointments. “What I’ve also said is that it is important for American to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.”

Gay rights advocates and progressives denounced the decision to associate with Warren, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, immediately after inaugural organizers announced the lineup for the ceremony yesterday. The Human Rights Campaign sent a blistering letter to Obama (D) in which it called the choice of Warren “a genuine blow” to gay Americans, who supported Obama overwhelmingly in his race against Republican nominee John McCain.

The letter noted Warren’s vocal support of California’s Proposition 8, a ballot measure banning gay marriage in the state that was approved by California voters last month. “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,” the letter said.

The question, of course, is whether Obama will go beyond symbolism into discussions of actual political compromise. That’s the true danger zone. The only story here is that mere symbolism is already dangerous for the people on both extremes.

The Post did nod in the direction of Warren as a more mature, nuanced brand of evangelical:

Warren has been credited with helping to broaden evangelicals’ focus on such social issues as gay rights and abortion to include global warming, poverty and the AIDS epidemic. He drew criticism from many evangelicals when he invited Obama to his conference on AIDS in 2006. But he has earned the ire of liberals with his opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research — stances that are well in line with his faith as a Southern Baptist preacher.

Obama told reporters that he appreciated Warren’s invitation to speak at the his church “despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his” on gay rights and abortion. “Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to speak,” Obama said. “And that dialogue has been part of what my campaign is all about.”

One of the best roundups of the anger on the left is at The Politico, which pulled that angle out into a stand-alone story. I think that was a valid decision, in this case. After all, Obama was sinning for a second time on this issue, as he tries to stay in touch with mainstream evangelical churches, white and black:

The rapid, angry reaction from a range of gay activists comes as the gay rights movement looks for an opportunity to flex its political muscle. Last summer gay groups complained, but were rebuffed by Obama, when an “ex-gay” singer led Obama’s rallies in South Carolina. And many were shocked last month when voters approved the California ban.

Meanwhile, this is one of those stories that make me thankful for cyberspace and interactive weblogs. It’s nice to see tons of links in one place.

I mean, check out our friend Steven Waldman’s piece on this flap, over at Beliefnet. Much like Obama, he respects Warren as a worthy opponent on some issues and a valuable ally on others. That sounds like this:

… Warren has used his fame and fortune primarily to help the most destitute people in the world. He reverse tithes, giving away 90% and keeping 10%. Please contemplate all the religious figures who have gotten rich off their flock and pocketed the money. Who among you reverse tithe or would if you were rich? I know I don’t, and every time I think about what Warren has done it makes me question whether I’m giving enough. That is a Christ-like example.

Second, he’s worked hard to get other conservative evangelicals to care more about poverty. Some on the left had hopes that Warren would somehow move evangelicals to the left on social issues. They were confusing temperamental with political moderation. Just because Warren is a nice guy, greets you with a hug, used to wear Hawaiian shirts, and cares about the poor, doesn’t mean he’s a political liberal or even moderate. He’s not. But it’s in part because he’s conservative on everything else that his views on poverty carry such weight in the evangelical community.

Read it all. And, while you are at it, chase this link over to Andrew Sullivan and contemplate this question: Can Warren be accused of hate speech? Does Obama want to associate with that?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://perpetuaofcarthage.blogspot.com/ Perpetua

    Well, the GLBT activists are boycotting people who donated as little as $100 to Prop 8. They are trying to make it completely unacceptable to hold an opposing view on same-sex marriage. Obama’s embrace of Warren completely undermines their ostracism/ boycott tactics. It’s like the coolest boy in middle school refusing to ostracize someone the mean girl clique is snubbing.

  • http://darleeneisms.la darleene

    As admirable as Warren’s practice of reverse tithing is, I would still caution against deifying Warren, as I’m sure he would also. He is, after all, just a man. A good man, I’m sure, but a simple man.

  • http://www.followingthelede.blogspot.com Sabrina

    Who could Obama have picked that wouldn’t have engendered an equivalent response from some segment of the population?

  • Jerry

    The context of some of the uproar might be lost unless you’re aware of Warren’s interview at Beliefnet which is I think well worth reading in its entirety: http://www.beliefnet.com/News/2008/12/Rick-Warren-Transcript.aspx He makes a number of points that I think will leave quite a few people feeling uncomfortable and that I believe is as it should be. The summary of bullet points is http://blog.beliefnet.com/stevenwaldman/2008/12/rick-warrens-dark-night-of-the.html

    The only story here is that mere symbolism is already dangerous for the people on both extremes.

    I think the story is that Obama really did mean what he said about listening to other opinions and that he was prophetic when he talked about people being uncomfortable with some of his decisions.

  • FW Ken

    Is this really merely a “symbolic” gesture, or is there a substantive attempt being made to avoid a winner-take-all spoils of war scenario? As a Catholic, I probably shouldn’t indulge a stark contrast between “symbol” and “substance”, but I really want to believe my next president can actually engage – substantively – people with whom he disagrees.

    I’ve been reading this reaction to Pastor Warren on other blogs, and it strikes me that for some folks, there is One Thing That Matters. If you aren’t right about that One Thing, you are the devil’s own child (or a secularist equivalent) and all that liberal “non-judgementalism” is gone in a flash. I only mention liberals since they are more likely to harp on being “non-judgemental” (or used to – I may be dating myself). Anyway, conservatives often have One Thing That Matters, of course. It’s an equal opportunity dysfunction.

    Waldman makes a decent attempt to move beyond the One Thing and consider a larger picture. Isn’t that what journalism ought to do? Or should it feed our obsessions and private passions by stoking uncivil rage?

    BTW, for some clarifications of what Pastor Warren actually said, here is a link from the Waldman article linked above:


    As always, it’s instructive to read what a person says and not only what his opponents say he said. For example, why he considers same-sex marriage to be a free speech issue. Sullivan (who really is a One Thing That Matters kind of guy) doesn’t quite do Warren justice, but hey, as he notes, anyone can accuse anyone of “hate speech”.

  • http://notes-from-offcenter.com Drew Tatusko

    I actually think that Warren’s theological views are more consistent with Obama’s than the right or the left care to admit. Lest the LGBT community ignore it, he shares the same definition of marriage as Warren. They only differ with the degree of legislation that said definition should incur. Obama is more federalist with how the norm should be administered.

    Moreover, Warren more and more represents the silent majority of Reagan’s day. He is actually a more representative of mainstream evangelicalism than many people are now painting him. While I think his theology is boring and not worth my time, when you have a major hit like the Purpose Driven Life, your ideas are representative of a lot of people – more people than I would argue the HRC or FRC can muster combined.

    I think the most important issue is why we have invocations, benedictions, and bibles at civic ceremonies. When Warren prays, he will pray to one God because he not only knows one God alone, but believes all others to be false idols worthy of damnation. And that is not an extreme view, but a very mainstream evangelical view. When he prays he will be praying on behalf of one group of the population that goes far beyond the LGBT folks who think he hates them. It really is an irony and a strange inconsistency all around as I posted yesterday: http://notes-from-offcenter.com/2008/12/18/et-tu-barack/

  • rw


    I think I’ve had a few of those in my old web site construction days.

  • Pingback: et tu, barack? · Notes From Off-Center

  • Dave G.

    Can Warren be accused of hate speech?

    That’s the trick, isn’t it. Hate speech is, after all, often a matter of opinion.

    As for Warren being this or that, I think he is a tough nut to crack. He is basically a new type of Evangelical in the way Billy Graham was a new type of Fundamentalist in his day (and became one of the primary figures of the new Evangelical movement). Warren has certainly shaken up the Evangelical world. Personally, it’s been the reaction to Warren, more than Warren himself, that has fascinated me. But his impact on the dynamics of Evangelical life go back to Purpose Driven Church - something scarcely mentioned in most stories, or if mentioned, simply named and then ‘let’s move on to the juicy stuff.’ Warren’s impact is best seen in his first book, and how Evangelical leaders processed it, not the next one that gets all the attention. Not that Warren isn’t fun to follow, but the impact on Evangelical life, and seeing where Warren fits into the bigger scheme of things, is best seen in the pages of his first big success.

  • Dave2

    1. I think “One Thing That Matters” is misleading. Most people have a whole host of deal-breakers. Some that come to mind include racism, anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial, Marxism, creationism, and 9/11 conspiracy theorizing. Homophobia is one deal-breaker for a lot of people, but I’m sure they have a lot of other deal-breakers as well.

    2. Why not accuse Warren of hate speech, but then say that it can frequently be a good thing to have hate speech out in the open and under discussion? After all, Warren’s views on homosexuality aren’t exactly on the fringe.

  • Stephen A.

    Gay rights advocates and progressives denounced the decision to associate with Warren, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage

    Has this Orwellian Newspeak of the Left been with us so long that it doesn’t even bear comment?

    That he’s “against rights” is so unchallengeable by the extreme Left just rolls off the keyboard of these reporters without a second thought.

    How about:

    “Liberals and those seeking marriage rights for homosexuals denounced the decision to associate with Warren, an outspoken opponent of the gay agenda and homosexual marriage.”

    Just as biased. Something one would see in the Washington Times, but it illustrates the opposite problem.

    Frankly, we need some balance here in how we identify people and their views (a long-term discussion here on GR, I know.)

    On another note, many in the media have done a good job of pointing out that this pastor in particular is NOT the natural enemy of Obama nor of liberals, based on his rather moderate views, and that the gay movement has really picked a fight here for the wrong reasons. The possible alienation of Obama from the more extreme of the gay activists pushing this issue is being well covered and the commentary is quite detailed and thorough. So, kudos to the MSM in this regard!

  • Dave

    Dave2, the present discussion of Warren pivots on him being invited to deliver Obama’s inaugural invocation. I doubt that he will offer a diatribe about homosexuality (though I will be listening to see if anything interesting happens) so his hate speech will likely not be out in the open on this occasion.

    And I have a suggestion: Anyone who objects to this preacher doing this invocation can show up for the inaugural, take a leaf from that reporter who pitched his footware at Bush, and wave his or her shoe in the air during the invocation. (In Arab culture that’s almost as big an insult as throwing the shoe.)

  • Stephen A.

    Like Dave, I think everyone in the crowd listening to the pastor and doesn’t like him should take off a shoe – heck, both shoes – and wave them in the air.

    Oh, BTW, almost forgot: It will likely be about 10 degrees that day, so I hope hospitals are ready for 50,000 cases of frostbite.

  • Dave2

    Dave, the “hate speech” stuff was not at all about Warren’s invocation and its likely content. It was about Warren’s claim that, without Prop 8, anti-gay religious leaders might be in legal trouble for hate speech.

  • Dave

    Dave2, making that claim about Prop 8 is a fallacy, but is not hate speech in & of itself.

    Stephen A., this depends on how long the invocation runs. ;-)

  • Dave2


    I know (and sorry if this is getting tedious), but then Warren’s claim led Mollie to raise the question of whether Warren could be accused of hate speech for the things he’s said. For the record, the whole thing seems silly to me, which I have the “might as well call it hate speech and move on” attitude. No doubt a lot of my views, if expressed, would be called ‘hate speech’ by some weirdo or another, and it’s not like the term has much content to it.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I didn’t write this post. Terry did.