Commentary: Obama took a risk worth taking in his Warren invite
WASHINGTON -- By inviting Pastor Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation, President-elect Barack Obama has alienated some of his friends on the left. By accepting, Warren has enraged some of his allies on the right.
Obama and Warren have helped each other in the past, and both know exactly what they're doing.
If you're on the left, how you view Obama's move depends upon who you think Warren is, where you think he's going, and what you think Obama is up to.
Liberals who see Warren as a garden-variety conservative evangelical defined primarily by his opposition to gay marriage accuse Obama of selling them out. Gays and lesbians enraged by Warren's strong opposition to gay marriage in last month's California referendum charge Obama with pandering to white evangelicals and fear the president-elect has gone out of his way to offend them in order to curry favor with straight conservatives.
But a more benign view on parts of the religious left casts Warren as the evangelical best positioned to lead moderately conservative white Protestants toward a greater engagement with the issues of poverty and social justice, and away from a relentless focus on abortion and gay marriage.
Recall Warren's 2006 invitation to Obama to come to his Saddleback Church in California for a discussion on the AIDS crisis. The right came down hard on the idea of giving an evangelical platform to this up-and-coming supporter of abortion rights.
Warren wouldn't back down and offered ABC News a delightful explanation for his political apostasy. "I'm a pastor, not a politician," Warren said. "People always say, 'Rick, are you right wing or left wing?' I say 'I'm for the whole bird.'"
Many liberals hope -- and a lot of conservatives fear -- that the rise of "whole bird" Christianity will break up right-wing dominance in the white evangelical community.
Obama never forgot what Warren did for him and brought the episode up last week in explaining why he had asked the pastor to pray at his inauguration. "A couple of years ago," Obama recalled, "I was invited to Rick Warren's church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion."
One need not be too pious about any of this. Both Warren and Obama are shrewd leaders who sense where the political winds are blowing.
Warren understands that a new generation of evangelicals has tired of an excessively partisan approach to religion. Evangelical Christianity's reach will be limited if the tradition is seen as little more than an extension of the politics of George Bush, Karl Rove and Sarah Palin.
An opening to Obama is the right move for this moment, and Warren appears to be genuinely interested in broadening evangelical Christianity's public agenda. In a recent interview with Steve Waldman of Beliefnet.com, Warren compared gay marriage to "an older guy marrying a child," and to "one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage." But he also called upon evangelicals to be "the social change leaders in our society" engaged with "poverty and disease and charity and social justice and racial justice."
Obama wants to encourage this move, which would be good for him and good for progressive politics. Fear that Obama's analysis is exactly right is why so many conservatives are so angry with Warren for blessing the new president's inaugural.
Although I support gay marriage, I think that liberals should welcome Obama's success in causing so much consternation on the right. On balance, inviting Warren opens more doors than it closes.
Warren has some decisions to make, too. He would do well to apologize for comparing gays to pedophiles, and also for comments to Beliefnet deriding mainline Protestants for not caring much "about redemption, the cross, repentance."
It would be especially powerful if Warren stood up for Rich Cizik, who had to step down as chief lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals after daring to make supportive comments about homosexual civil unions. Cizik was pushed out by conservative forces opposed to precisely the social evangelicalism that Warren wants to preach. Cizik deserves a little Christian charity right about now.
Yet liberals also need to come to terms with what it means to build a durable majority. Doing so requires not just easy gestures but hard ones. Here's a prayer that by calling in his friend Rick Warren, Obama took a risk worth taking.
E.J. Dionne's e-mail address is email@example.com.