Barack Obama's invitation to evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation on Inauguration Day not only has stirred the fury of the political left. In a way that team Obama never intended, it has created a challenge to liberalism's secular ethos--but only if evangelical leaders such as Warren can keep partisanship from polluting their piety.
The outpouring of liberal rage at Obama's choice of Warren, a defender of traditional marriage, was sadly predictable. He is being denounced as a homophobe, a counterfeit Christian, and a Nazi. Saddleback Church, Warren's megachurch in Orange County, California, has been the target of angry protests for his support of the pro-marriage initiative, Proposition 8. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen scolded Warren for his "exaltation of ignorance that has led and will lead to discrimination and violence." For his part, president-elect Obama is experiencing the fury of gay activists and media elites who feel betrayed. Time magazine's John Cloud, in a recent column, no doubt spoke for many of them: "Obama has proved himself repeatedly to be a very tolerant, very rational-sounding sort of bigot."
Here is an ideology that has become emotionally unhinged--a political conscience impaired by grievances, hatreds, and conspiracy theories. Senator Obama no doubt contributed to this culture of rage by his long association with the belligerent Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Nevertheless, candidate Obama eventually repudiated Wright, and he deserves credit for rejecting a similar brand of anathematizing politics. "We can disagree without being disagreeable," Obama told his critics, "and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans." Call it Obama's "Sister Souljah" moment, when in a 1992 speech Bill Clinton openly criticized the racist demagoguery of a popular rap artist. There has been a dearth of honest exchanges like this in the Democratic Party, and their scarcity has helped to pollute our political discourse.
Rick Warren's presence at Obama's presidential inauguration, then, creates an important symbolic moment, though not only for liberals. Warren has prodded conservative Christians to broaden their agenda to combat problems such as global poverty and HIV/AIDS. His church has helped to mobilize thousands of volunteers to deliver food, clothing, and medical assistance in Africa and other parts of the developing world. "For probably the last 25 years, evangelicalism became co-opted, and for most people it became a political term," Warren said during the presidential campaign. "And it got identified with a certain style of political leanings." Conservatives are loathe to admit it, but Republican operatives have repeatedly manipulated the evangelical message for partisan ends (a process I witnessed firsthand during my years at conservative think tanks). If recent opinion polls are any guide, the politicization of religion has done untold damage to the Republican Party and the church's influence in society.
What does this all of this mean for evangelicals and party politics? Some writers, such as Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, project their secular aspirations on Obama's relationship with Warren. A liberal Catholic, Dionne hopes that an Obama-Warren alliance will soften the religious orthodoxy of politically motivated evangelicals. He envisions the conversion of a generation of believers--"tired of an excessively partisan approach to religion"--into social justice progressives. The obvious hope, shared by the religious left, is that Warren will sanction the massive expansion of government social programs and bring much of his evangelical flock along with him.
They are apt to be disappointed. For starters, evangelical church leaders believe instinctively in localism: the church, not the state, is the most effective institution to deliver meaningful help to those in need. So, for example, Saddleback's church network has sent over 2,600 small groups to "adopt" poor villages in Rwanda. For all his talk of social justice, Warren emphasizes the immediate human dimension to social problems--the need for strong families and moral communities that offer both assistance and accountability. Unlike his liberal counterparts, Warren's ministry enlists churches, not political action committees, as the catalyst for social change. (Next week, a gaggle of leftwing ministers will descend on Washington to call on the federal government to "overcome the scandal of poverty" in America.)
There is at least one great risk for Rick Warren in his new role. In exchange for the privilege of delivering a presidential benediction, he may--in the manner of a supplicant to Vito Corleone--be called upon to assist the Obama administration in times of trouble. This was Bill Clinton's strategy as he solicited evangelicals such as Tony Campolo as his "spiritual advisors." When Clinton's sex scandal with Monica Lewinsky threatened to topple his presidency, he effectively received spiritual exoneration from his ministerial team, who demeaned themselves, and their Christian message, in the process. "The most troublesome aspect of this contrivance is that so many people in the religious community have been misled by it," wrote Robert Jewett, a professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. "By turning confession into propaganda, President Clinton has disarmed our critical capacities and rendered us vulnerable to the big lie."
No minister can claim immunity from the temptations of political power. Nevertheless, Warren was right to accept Obama's invitation to offer a benediction. He will do so, as he has said, as a believing Christian. That will disappoint many Obama supporters, who reflexively associate conservative religion with social repression. They will be reminded, to their discomfort, that Christians who believe firmly in the need for spiritual redemption can also be crusaders for the poor and marginalized.
An evangelical prayer on Inauguration Day also seems fitting, given Obama's historic election as America's first African-American president. It was, after all, an earlier generation of evangelicals--believers with the same reformist zeal as Rick Warren--who gave birth to the abolition party, the party of Lincoln, the president who freed America's slaves. Henry Ward Beecher, a Republican who campaigned for Lincoln in 1860, warned his Brooklyn congregation against a political compromise that would allow slavery to spread. "If we go on to purchase peace on these terms, we become partners in slavery, and consent, for the sake of peace, to ratify this gigantic evil," he said. "We cannot wink at it."
For all their faults and failings, evangelical Christians have been central players in America's freedom narrative. They thus are part of the story of Barack Obama's remarkable journey to the presidency--a debt that he, and his supporters, would do well to recall.
Joseph Loconte is a senior research fellow at The King's College in New York City and a frequent contributor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.