If nothing else, Rick Warren is a miracle worker in the realm of public relations. He is a man who compares legal abortion to the Holocaust and gay marriage to incest and pedophilia. He believes that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and other non-Christians are going to spend eternity burning in hell. He doesn't believe in evolution. He recently dismissed the social gospel - the late 19th- and early 20th-century Protestant movement that led a religious crusade against poverty and inequality - as "Marxism in Christian clothing". Yet thanks to his amiable attitude and jocular tone, he has managed to create a popular image for himself as a moderate, even progressive force in American life, a reasonable, compassionate alternative to the punitive, sex-obsessed inquisitors of the religious right. And Barack Obama, who should know better, has helped him do it.
Yesterday brought the news that Warren would be giving the invocation at Obama's inauguration. For Warren, this is a bit of a coup, since he seems to aspire to be the country's unofficial national pastor, a role once occupied by Billy Graham. He already played an unprecedented role in the 2008 presidential election when he conducted back-to-back interviews with John McCain and Obama, which essentially made him the moderator, and his church the stage, for the first joint event of the campaign season. By participating in that exercise, Obama lent Warren undeserved legitimacy as a kind of national moral arbiter.
Still, his taking part could be defended as an act of canny political outreach. After all, one of the great things about Obama was the way he tried to connect with audiences that hadn't previously been receptive to Democratic messages. It made sense for Obama to try and win the vote of Warren's followers. But honouring Warren by giving him a major role at the inauguration does not make sense. It is a slap in the face to many of Obama's staunchest supporters.
That's especially true given how bittersweet the election was for many gay people, who largely cheered the new president while grieving the loss of same-sex marriage in California. Warren supported the ballot initiative that stripped gay Californians of their marriage rights. He made the absurd argument that legalized gay marriage constituted a threat to the first amendment rights of religious conservatives. If gay marriage were to remain legal, Warren claimed, those who opposed it could somehow be charged with hate speech should they express their views. This is an utterly baseless canard, but one with great currency in the religious right, the milieu from which Warren consistently draws his ideas.
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Recently, Democrats have been much concerned with wooing religious voters, and with pushing back against the conservative calumny that they are a party hostile to faith. But the way for a progressive party to do that should be to enlarge the scope of discussion about morality in American life, not to pander to the same prejudices as the religious right. Democrats could foreground religious leaders who articulate the moral imperative of fighting poverty, torture and inequality. They don't need to get religion by becoming more hostile to gay people and to reproductive rights. Rather, they need to empower the many religious voices who support both.
Warren is sometimes credited with broadening evangelical activism to transcend religious right preoccupations, but that's a bit deceptive. Much has been made of his work on HIV/Aids in Africa. In fact, though, Warren has taken the standard Christian conservative approach to the epidemic, which favors abstinence and prayer over condoms and sex education. I once attended Sunday services at the church of Martin Ssempa, one of Warren's protégés in Uganda and a major force in that country's devastating move away from safe-sex campaigns. It is a heartbreaking thing to watch a tongue-speaking faith-healer promise a room full of sobbing people - many of them poor, many infected with HIV - that Jesus can cure them, if only they believe in him unconditionally (belief demonstrated, of course, in part by tithing generously).
Meanwhile, while Warren says he opposes torture, he doesn't treat the subject with anything like the zeal he accords gay marriage and abortion. As he recently told Beliefnet.com, he never even brought up the subject with the Bush administration, where he had considerable access. Just before the 2004 election, he sent out an e-mail to his congregation outlining the five issues that he considered "non-negotiable". "In order to live a purpose-driven life - to affirm what God has clearly stated about his purpose for every person he creates - we must take a stand by finding out what the candidates believe about these five issues, and then vote accordingly," he wrote. The issues were abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, cloning and euthanasia. Torture, apparently, is something that decent Christians can disagree on.
One doesn't expect Obama to surround himself only with spiritual advisers that meet some liberal litmus test. It is savvy to try and co-opt Warren, who seems to love proximity to power and who might otherwise be a strong critic. Nevertheless, further elevating this terribly powerful man necessarily comes at the expense of gay people, secularists, religious minorities and feminists. Rick Warren is a deeply polarizing figure, and has said things far more offensive than anything that ever passed the lips of Jeremiah Wright. He has every right to preach as he pleases and to build his fortune, but he does not belong at the center of American civic life, and Obama shouldn't put him there.