Once upon a time, presidents tended to choose their own pastors, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, to give the invocation at their inaugurations. The idea was: Here's the guy who presides over my religious life, the guy I go to for spiritual counsel, and so I'm going to honor him by letting him say the prayer over this latest ceremonial occasion of my life. Thus, John F. Kennedy gave the nod to Boston's Cardinal Richard Cushing in 1961 and, in 1981, Ronald Reagan tapped Bel Air Presbyterian pastor Donn Moomaw. From time to time, the invoking cleric would be chosen for symbolic reasons, as when Dwight Eisenhower selected Orthodox Archbishop Michael in 1957 and Reagan, in 1985, chose the president of Georgetown University, Father Joseph A. O'Hare S.J.
But over the past two decades, it appears that a new office has emerged--that of Pastor to the President. This emergence is a bit obscured by the fact that the only actual holder of that office has been Billy Graham. Graham gave the invocations at the inauguration of George H.W. Bush and both Clinton inaugurals, and was slated to do the same at George W. Bush's 2001 affair, but because of illness had to cede the job to his son Franklin. It is, I think, in this context that Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren needs to be seen. As has been widely noted, Warren bids fair to become the closest thing to Billy Graham that the country has today. At the moment, he's way more controversial than the now sainted Graham, but in his younger days, Billy was plenty controversial himself.
What's important to recognize is that the position of presidential pastor is not entirely bogus. It entails spiritual counseling, advice and friendship, pastoral care. Graham actually seems to have filled that role for Richard Nixon, which helps explain why Nixon tapped him for his first inaugural invocation. The Clintons are both attached to him; according to Burns Strider, who handled faith outreach for the Hillary Clinton campaign, whenever Hillary was slated to make an appearance in North Carolina, she insisted on paying a call on the old man. And of course, George W. Bush has made central to his faith journey that walk on the beach with Billy. Even if that particular event is, strictly speaking, apocryphal, the personal connection seems real.
Rick Warren is of course the head of the Saddleback world, the crusader for AIDS, the best-selling author of popular religious books. But he also, from what I gather, has taken it upon himself to serve as spiritual counselor to the politically prominent. There is every indication that Obama has availed himself of his services. Amidst all the huffing and puffing about Warren's choice to give next month's invocation, hardly raised at all is the possibility that this was, for Obama, as much a personal as a political decision. His family is, famously, between churches, and his relationship with Jeremiah Wright can hardly be what it once was. Warren seems to have given the president-elect good reason to like him and value his advice; the two call each other friend. We may think whatever we want of either, but this may be more about them than us.
Update: In support of this view of Warren, here's an exchange with Steve Waldman from a recent interview:
Did you ever talk to President Bush to try to convince him to change his policy?
Never got the chance. I just didn’t. In fact, in the first place, I’m a pastor, and people might misunderstand – I don’t deal with policy issues with Barack Obama or President Clinton or John McCain. I just don’t. That’s not my role. My role is to pastor these guys. As a leader I understand stress.
And even when I disagree with positions they hold, they’ve got plenty of political advisors. They don’t need me to be a political advisor. I’m not a pundit. I’m not a politician and that’s why I don’t take sides. But I am a pastor. And I can deal with “how’s your family doing? How’s your stress level doing?”
(Originally published at Spiritual Politics.)
California megachurch pastor Rick Warren will be preaching at 16 Christmas services and was not available for an interview with Christianity Today. However, he sent us a statement about his decision to pray at Barack Obama's inauguration, in response to the criticism Obama has received for inviting Warren.
"I commend President-elect Obama for his courage to willingly take enormous heat from his base by inviting someone like me, with whom he doesn’t agree on every issue, to offer the Invocation at his historic Inaugural ceremony.
Hopefully individuals passionately expressing opinions from the left and the right will recognize that both of us have shown a commitment to model civility in America.
The Bible admonishes us to pray for our leaders. I am honored by this opportunity to pray God’s blessing on the office of the President and its current and future inhabitant, asking the Lord to provide wisdom to America’s leaders during this critical time in our nation’s history."
Obama's pick also begs the question that David Waters asks in the Washington Post's On Faith section: "To Whose God Will Rick Warren Pray?"
Billy Graham used inclusive language when he delivered the Inaugural Invocation in 1989. "0 God, we consecrate today George Herbert Walker Bush to the presidency of these United States," he said. But four years later, Graham ended his invocation at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration this way: I pray this in the name of the one that's called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace. Amen."
Waters also reminds readers that in 2001, Franklin Graham ended his invocation with, "in the name of the father, and of the son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit." And Kirbyjon Caldwell ended with, "'We respectfully submit this humble prayer in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ."
At the DNC, Blue Like Jazz author Donald Miller ended his prayer with "I make these requests in the name of your son, Jesus, who gave his own life against the forces of injustice," putting a slight emphasis on I. Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter took a more unconventional approach during his benediction.
Now I interrupt this prayer for a closing instruction. I want to personalize this. I want this to be a participatory prayer. And so therefore, because we are in a country that is still welcoming all faiths, I would like all of us to close this prayer in the way your faith tradition would close your prayer.
So on the count of three, I want all of you to end this prayer, your prayer, the way you usually end prayer. You ready? One, two, three.
In Jesus' name, Amen.
Let's go change the world for good.
Waters also asks another question: "Does it matter?" What do you think?
"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 news conference this morning. "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 angrily denounced Obama's choice of Warren, who is an opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
“Your invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at your inauguration is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans,” the president of Human Rights Campaign, Joe Solomonese, wrote to Obama yesterday. “[W]e feel a deep level of disrespect when one of architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination."
To my knowledge, these groups didn't make a fuss when Florida megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, who also opposes abortion and same-sex marriage, prayed with Obama on Election Day and prayed at the Democratic National Convention. However, these groups are still stinging from California's decision to ban gay marriage, which Warren vocally supported.
Rick Warren, senior pastor at Saddleback Church, will give the invocation at Barack Obama’s inaugural swearing-in ceremony on January 20.
The benediction will be given by Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, dean of the civil rights movement and co-founder with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Obama will be the first president since Harry Truman not to have a close relationship with evangelist Billy Graham. Franklin Graham told CT last month that although his father is praying for and would like to meet Obama, his role as counselor is ending. Could Rick Warren fill that role?
Rick Warren is keeping a list, and checking it often. He'll have to memorize it because he can't count on having his Blackberry when he needs this list most. This is Rick Warren's list of questions for God.
In the course of a fascinating conversation last week with Beliefnet and our partner The Wall Street Journal -- click here for video of the full interview and here for a transcript -- Warren was stunningly candid about having doubts, even "dark nights of the soul."
"Oh absolutely. All the time."
"What do you mean 'all the time'?"
"I've never doubted God. But I've doubted why God does certain things....".
There are parts of the Bible, for instance, that he doesn't get -- "slaughters in the Bible and rules that don't seem to make sense and things that just don't seem to me, to be logical."
"And I still have doubts, I mean, I read the Bible and go 'whoa, why did God say that?'"
He concludes that these passages are mystifying because he just doesn't have "the brain capacity" to understand God -- but he is eager to ask Him a few questions at the appropriate moment.
One is why He gave humans the ability to have babies before they're ready to raise them. He also wants to know how prayer works - why God answers some prayers right away and not others. "The truth is, that the vast majority of our prayers, we don't see those kinds of miracles."
But his number one question, he says, is about suffering: "I know why there's evil in the world, I don't understand why so much suffering happens to so many innocent people."
I don't want to give the impression Warren has lost faith. Quite the opposite. Most of our talk was devoted to his absolute conviction that the real "purpose of Christmas" is understanding, treasuring and opening the gift of grace - the idea that Jesus said In effect, "I've paid for everything you need to get into Heaven. I've paid your ticket..... That's the gift." (Watch him talk about "the gift")
He also dove headlong into some of the most controversial culture war issues, in ways likely to surprise and perhaps enrage some on the left and right.
Most Likely to Infuriate Liberals:
- Gay marriage is morally equivalent to allowing brothers and sisters to marry. Watch.
- He opposes torture but didn't try to convince President Bush to change course because "I never had the opportunity." Watch.
- A possibly veiled slap at Islam: "He could have made us all puppets. ... He could have put us on strings and we'd pray five times a day and we'd have no choice." Watch.
- "Abortion reduction" efforts are mostly a "charade." Watch.
- His historical argument that "social gospel" Protestantism was "just Marxism in Christian clothing" and that "the mainline [Protestants] died." Watch.
Most Likely to Infuriate Conservatives:
- He supports partnership rights for gays including insurance and visitation benefits. This appears to be a similar position to that which just prompted the resignation of a top official of the National Association of Evangelicals. Watch.
- His declaration that it's a "no brainer" that divorce is a bigger threat to the American family than gay marriage, and that Christian leaders focus on gay marriage instead because "we always love to talk about other people's sins." Watch.
- Religious conservatives have misled people into thinking Christ's message was primarily about conservative politics and that politics is the primary way to change culture. Watch.
- The Bush administration seems to have engaged in torture, which he condemned. Watch.
- While condemning abortion as a Holocaust and abortion reduction as a "charade" he nonetheless said he would support those efforts, which he equated to Schindler's list -- a way of reducing the harm of an overall evil. Watch.
Most Likely to Titillate Theologians:
- While your behavior doesn't determine whether you get into heaven, it does determine what you do once you're there. Watch.
- His statement that "I really don't know" whether people who don't know about Christ will be blocked entry into heaven. Watch.
- "God's will is not done most of the time on earth. When people go, 'oh, that hurricane must have been God's will' - baloney!" Watch.
Most Likely to Inspire and Challenge:
- The story of his daughter in law's brain tumor and its surprising lesson the family learned. Watch.
- His relentless commitment to awakening Americans to African poverty. Watch.
- His personal Christmas prayer. Watch.
- His argument that the economic collapse comes from abandoning Biblical principles of thrift. Watch.
Moment I'd Most Like To Follow Up About:
Everyone will have their favorites. But for me the most interesting moment was after he described the gift of grace, and I then asked: "Why if he forgives us for murdering or raping would he not forgive us for not believing in Him?" He took his best shot, but I'm not sure he totally nailed it. Watch.
(Originally posted at Steve Waldman's blog at Beliefnet.)