Is Rick Warren the New Billy Graham?

The blogosphere is abuzz with the news that Rick Warren will deliver the inaugural invocation on January 20, 2009. Many bloggers are noting the fact that Warren and Obama disagree on a host of social issues. Others, particularly from the LBGT community, are condemning the decision based on Warren’s opposition to proposition 8 in California. Others are defending the choice. Salon reports that it was actually Congress, not Obama, who chose Warren to give the prayer.

While all of this is interesting, it is also worth noting here that the invocation will not be delivered by a Graham. Billy gave the inaugural prayer for Richard Nixon in 1969, George H.W. Bush in 1989, and Bill Clinton in 1993 and 1997. His son Franklin gave the prayer at George W. Bush’s inaugural in 2001.

Is Rick Warren the new Billy Graham? Perhaps. But if he is, he represents a very different style than the esteemed evangelist. Ever since Graham got burned by Richard Nixon he made every effort to stay as vague as possible on social and political issues. We assume that Graham is pro-life, anti-gay marriage, supports the fight against global aids, and is opposed to stem-cell research, but I can’t remember a time when he ever talked extensively about these things. Graham worried that delving into these polarizing issues would hurt the cause of the gospel. Warren, on the other hand, has made his position on some of these issues very clear. In doing so, he has angered both Christian conservatives and secular liberals. Warren may be America’s pastor, but he is certainly more of a polarizing figure than Graham.

One of the critiques of Graham has been that he has not always spoken truth to power, preferring instead to serve as a behind the scenes counselor to presidents and other national politicians. If indeed Warren is the new ministerial darling of U.S. presidents, it should be interesting to see how he handles this ceremonial role. Will he be a spiritual advisor to Obama? Will he challenge the administration to reconsider its views on abortion? What can we expect?

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