Marco Rubio’s Appeal to the Evangelical Mainstream

Rubio

GOP presidential candidate Marco Rubio recently announced the creation of a campaign advisory board that will focus on religious liberty issues.  It is an impressive group of scholars, activists, theologians, and legal experts.  Though it is doubtful that the members of this committee will play a major role in the Florida Senator’s day-to-day quest for the White House, its makeup tells us a lot about the religious sensibilities of the Rubio campaign.

The advisory board was the brainchild of Eric Teetsel, the Rubio campaign’s director for faith outreach.  Teetsel is a 2006 graduate of evangelical Wheaton College, an architect of the Values & Capitalism project at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and the executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, which he describes on his website as a “ ‘call of Christian conscience’ on life, marriage, and religious liberty.”

Teetsel has assembled nothing short of an all-star team of conservative evangelical leaders—men and women who have been outspoken defenders of religious liberty as the GOP understands it.  The roster includes Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California and Barack Obama’s choice to pray at his inauguration in 2008; Samuel Rodriguez, the most prominent Hispanic evangelical in the country and the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; and Michael McConnell, the Stanford University Law School professor who was considered by George W. Bush as serious Supreme Court nominee in 2005.

Rubio’s board is also religiously diverse, at least as far as the Judeo-Christian tradition goes.  It includes a Jewish Rabbi, several Roman Catholics, and, of course, a large number of Protestant evangelicals.

But it is Teetsel’s choice of evangelicals that speaks volumes.  In addition to Warren and Rodriguez, the board includes Wheaton College theologian Vincent Bacote, the author of a recent book on evangelical political engagement and a strong advocate for the role of Christianity in cultural renewal; Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, a prolific writer on matters related to religious freedom and the American founding whose work is respected by liberals and conservatives alike; and Wayne Grudem, a theologian known best for his popularity among young Calvinist evangelicals and his defense of a “complementarian” view of marriage.

These evangelicals not only have respected academic credentials, or have proven to be thoughtful defenders of religious liberty, but they reveal Rubio’s appeal to a rational, sane, and more informed evangelical constituency than the kind of evangelicals that his GOP opponents have chosen to work with in recent months.

For example, Ted Cruz has sought to make inroads among evangelicals through his relationship with Texas Republican activist David Barton, the country’s foremost defender of the idea that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.  Barton’s use of the past to promote his political agenda has been almost universally discredited by historians, including nearly all evangelical historians.  But he has a large following and currently heads a Cruz super-Pac.  He still appears to have the ear of the Princeton and Harvard-educated Senator.

Donald Trump has found his own niche among the evangelical community.  In September 2015 the New York businessman and GOP presidential candidate met and prayed with a group of religious leaders dominated by Pentecostal Christians, many of whom adhere to the prosperity gospel, a brand of evangelicalism that teaches financial blessing will come to all true followers of Jesus Christ.

Granted, few American evangelicals will vote for Marco Rubio because of the make-up of his religious liberty advisory committee, but in assembling this group he has carved out a niche for himself as the candidate of the thoughtful evangelical mainstream.

Marco Rubio’s New Religious Advisers

RubioWorld magazine is reporting that Marco Rubio has put together a team of religious leaders to advise him on religious liberty issues.

The team includes:

 

Click here for the entire list.

Here is a taste of the World article:

Less than a month before the presidential primary season begins with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1, Sen.Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is set to announce a campaign advisory board focused on religious liberty issues.

Rubio’s campaign tapped a handful of well-known evangelicals for the volunteer board, including pastor Rick Warren, theologian Wayne Grudem, Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and Thomas Kidd, an author and professor of history at Baylor University (Kidd also occasionally writes for WORLD).

Eric Teetsel, director of faith outreach for Rubio’s campaign, said membership on the board doesn’t equal an endorsement of the GOP candidate, and the members could advise other campaigns if they wanted.

Warren told me he doesn’t endorse candidates. Grudem said he hasn’t been asked to endorse Rubio “but would be willing to endorse him if asked, while being clear I’m speaking as an individual, not a representative of any institution.”

Grudem called Rubio a reliable conservative and “a winsome, likable candidate who has the best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton, in my view.”

Teetsel said the board would advise the campaign on a range of issues, including persecuted Christians in the Middle East, legal concerns about the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, and religious liberty for those opposed to same-sex marriage…

Learn more about Teetsel here.

What If You Hold a Religion and Civility Forum and Nobody Comes?

Writing at The New Republic, Amy Sullivan argues that whatever kind of cultural and political clout Rick Warren once had has all but disappeared. You may recall that in 2008 Warren conducted a televised forum with Barack Obama and John McCain.  He called it the “Saddleback Church Civil Forum on the Presidency.” 

Warren tried to do it again in 2012, but neither Obama nor Romney were willing to come.  Warren said that he canceled the forum because the candidates were campaigning in an uncivil fashion, but Sullivan argues that the real reason the forum was canned was because Warren no longer carries the weight he once did in Christian circles and thus could not convince the campaigns that a nationally televised talk with him was worthwhile.

Here is a taste:

For the past few years, Warren has scoffed at the idea that he has any real involvement in politics. With this latest episode, the California pastor has also proven that he is not a leader. A real leader doesn’t respond to incivility in politics (the horror!) by throwing up his hands and cancelling a forum that he himself described as “a place where people of goodwill can seriously disagree on significant issues without being disagreeable or resorting to personal attack and name-calling.” And if that wasn’t the real reason he was cancelling the event, a real leader would swallow his pride and tell the truth.

Have Evangelicals Betrayed American Conservatism?

From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of  American ConservatismDarryl G. Hart thinks so.

This is the argument of Hart’s new book, From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin: Evangelicals and the Betrayal of American Conservatism (Eerdmans).  I just read an excerpt at the Eerdman’s website and it caused me to wonder why the word “betrayal” is in the subtitle of the book.  If I read Hart correctly, it seems that there has never been a time when evangelicals were truly conservative.  Don’t you need to be part of a particular community or embrace a particular ideology in order to betray it?  I probably need to read the rest of the book or else try to find an alternative definition of “betrayal.”

Whatever the case, I am sure that this will be a provocative and well-argued book and I look forward to reading it.  Here is a taste of a piece Hart wrote for the Eerdman’s blog:

I have always thought of myself as conservative, even if I did vote for Walter Mondale in 1984. Don’t ask. The son of Bob Jones University graduates who even voted for George Wallace in 1968 — really, don’t ask — I grew up in conservative Protestant circles with a particular understanding about the United States and its importance in world and, especially, salvation history.

As often happens during graduate school, my outlook on Protestantism and my ideas about politics changed — hence the vote for a Democratic nominee during my second year of graduate school. But I came out with a doctorate in history and a political and theological position still right of center. Politically, I was and still am ambivalent about what appeared to me to be the sloganeering of the Republican Party, so I registered as a Libertarian — thus avoiding the cop out status of “independent” voter. I don’t believe I have ever voted Libertarian or even known its nominees. Theologically, anyone who knows about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in which I am a ruling elder might place me in the extreme right.

When I started to work for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in 2003 I became aware of a variety of conservatism that was generally foreign to many Protestants of conservative convictions. This “traditionalist” conservatism avoided the bumper sticker mantras of talk radio, read Russell Kirk instead of David Brooks, and took the United States’ form of government — constitutionalism, republicanism, and federalism — so seriously as to look unpatriotic in the eyes of Americans who regarded the United States not as a modest republic but as either the greatest nation or the greatest national villain on God’s green earth.

After comparing this form of conservatism to the one that religious historians like myself studied under the heading of the Religious Right, I began to wonder whether or not the differences between evangelicals and the American Right needed greater scrutiny. And when I began to explore the history of born-again Protestants alongside that of American conservatives after World War II, I came to two conclusions: first, evangelicals did not take much instruction from conservatives about what it meant to be conservative; and second, evangelicals were more idealistic, moralistic, and even utopian than they were conservative.

Baseball and Religion

I was unaware that the Los Angeles Angels invited megachurch pastor Rick Warren to deliver a “Sermon on the Mound” on Easter Sunday before delivering the ceremonial first pitch before a game at Anaheim Stadium.

The “Beliefs” section of the Houston Chronicle has a short piece on the relationship between religion and baseball. Here is a taste:

To some, baseball, which F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called “the faith of 50 million people,” is revered as a religion in itself. It follows a seasonal calendar and builds towards a crowning moment. Its players perform priestly rituals, its history abounds with tales of mythic heroes, and its fans study and argue arcana with the intensity of Talmudic scholars.

Or, as Annie Savoy poetically puts it in the 1988 film Bull Durham, “The only church that feeds the soul, day in, and day out, is the church of baseball.”

Shaun Casey, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, doesn’t go that far, but he does teach a class called “Church of Baseball” at Wesley.

His students go to a baseball game, learn to keep score, and read a box score. In addition, they read Robert Bellah’s famous essay on America’s civil religion, watch Ken Burns’ magisterial documentary on baseball, learn about Jackie Robinson’s integration as the first black player in the major leagues, and read how the St. Louis Cardinals beat the vaunted New York Yankees in 1964 by building a team that blended black and white players.

The point of the class, Casey says, besides convincing students of the “divine blessedness” of the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, is to help seminarians think theologically about pop culture.

Like Casey, Rabbi Rebecca Alpert says baseball — particularly the integration of black players in the 1950s — can teach believers a thing or two about justice, fairness, and how to live in a pluralistic community.

Alpert, who teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia, said she remembers sitting with her mother in the stands at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and watching Jackie Robinson’s Dodgers. “She would say, ‘This is the team that integrated baseball,”’ making it clear which side to root for, Alpert recalls.

Alpert, who was among the first generation of female rabbis in the U.S., says she sees a connection between those summer days and her current work, which includes a forthcoming book on how Jews helped black baseball players get to the major leagues.

Other scholars say the national pastime is an integral part of the country’s civil religion — the secular events and places Americans invest with spiritual significance. Baseball’s civil rituals include having the president throw out the first pitch, as President Barack Obama did in Washington this year, and singing the national anthem before games, which began during World War II.

How do I enroll in Shaun Casey‘s class?

Frank Schaeffer on Rick Warren and American Evangelicalism

Frank Schaeffer is promoting another book. It is entitled Patience with God: Faith for People Who Don’t Like Religion or Atheism. I have not read it yet.

In case you do not know Frank Schaeffer, he is the son of Francis Schaeffer, the founder of “L’Abri Fellowship,” a Christian study center in Switzerland that was one of the first evangelical communities to take seriously the life of the mind. During the 1960s and 1970s Francis became an evangelical celebrity. Hundreds of young evangelicals and non-evangelicals traveled to L’Abri to explore their faith with Francis and participate in his Christian community. Even Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger had supposedly planned to visit L’Abri (they never showed up). Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page (of Led Zeppelin fame) were apparently fans of Schaeffer’s books.

Things changed, however, when Francis started providing intellectual heft to Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. According to Frank’s recent memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up As One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (Or Almost All) of it Back and Barry Hankins’s recent biography, Francis Schaeffer and the Shaping of Evangelical America, Francis would end his career as one of America’s strongest opponents of abortion rights (he was one of the first evangelicals to make an issue of it) and a defender of the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation. You can read my brief reviews of both of these books here and here.

Frank Schaeffer is a gifted writer and thinker in his own right, but he became famous in the evangelical world largely because he was the son of Francis. Since his father’s death he has abandoned evangelicalism and has written about other things, including two well-received books on being the father of a marine.

In 2007 Frank published a memoir of his evangelical childhood. Crazy for God is a fascinating and well-written book. It solidified Frank’s public persona as an “anti-evangelical.” Today he makes appearances on television news programs warning people about the evils of the Christian Right and apologizing for leading so many people astray during the years he spent at his father’s side.

Unlike some of my friends who admire Francis Schaeffer or who have spent time at “L’Abri, I do not have much at stake in what Frank Schaeffer writes. I have never been to L’Abri. I do not consider myself a disciple of his father. And I have only read a few of Francis Schaeffer’s books.

Yet I have always been a bit put off by Frank Schaeffer. Something bothers me about the way he regularly throws the evangelical movement under the bus (so to speak) on national television. People like Rachel Maddow and other liberal pundits love him. He goes on their shows as an expert witness–a former insider ready to testify to the dangers of evangelical religion.

I also lost some respect for Schaeffer when he used Crazy for God to tell the intimate details of his childhood in the Schaeffer family, including his father’s sex life and his mother’s battle with depression. What child does this?

Having said all of this, I was surprised when I found myself agreeing with some of Frank’s thoughts in this excerpt from Patience with God. His main target here is mega-church pastor and evangelical leader Rick Warren. He uses Warren as an example of the way evangelicals are prone to follow charismatic leaders.

First, let me say what I don’t like about the excerpt. Frank unfairly questions the depth of Rick Warren’s spirituality, presenting him as a religious celebrity with no real substance (does he know Warren? Who is he to judge a man’s relationship with God?). Moreover, Frank is way out of line in suggesting that anyone who embraces evangelicalism must eventually become either an atheist or a liar or a “flake.” Wow! Do I sense some bitterness?

But there is much about Frank’s critique of evangelicalism and fundamentalism that seems to be on the mark. For example, it is hard to argue with his assertion that evangelicalism is a relatively new movement in the history of Christendom:

Warren’s message turns out to be less about God than it is about trying to convince his readers to become American-style evangelicals. In other words, to find purpose they have to join the North American individualistic cult of one-stop born-again “salvation” to which Warren belongs. Warren’s Christianity (the leftover residue of the simplistic frontier Protestantism we call “evangelicalism” that broke most connections theological, aesthetic, and liturgical to the historic Christian churches of both the East and West) is not to be confused with what Christians through most of the 2,000-year history of their religion would have recognized as even remotely familiar. According to traditional Christianity, a person was not “saved” or “lost” in a one-stop magical affirmation of “correct” doctrine, but, rather, the process of salvation was lived out in a community. Salvation was a path toward God, not a you’re-in-or-out event, as in “At two thirty last Wednesday I accepted Jesus.” Just as Hillary Clinton said about child rearing, the process of redemption took a village. Pastors were part of that “village” tradition and were inducted into existing communities of faith. They were not self-made and reinventing the faith according to whim. The heart of worship was sacramental continuity and an unbroken connection to generations that came before.

While Christians did have evangelical-style conversion experiences in the early church (not to mention Paul on the road to Damascus), the kind of born-again Christianity we normally associate with American evangelicalism is a relatively new phenomenon in Western culture. I just got done teaching Harry Stout’s biography of George Whitefield, The Divine Dramatist. In that book Stout makes a very convincing argument that the evangelicalism we know today is only about 250 years old. Mark Noll implies the same thing in The Rise of Evangelicalism.

Frank continues:

Communities built cathedrals over generations. Usually, no one who worked on laying the building’s foundation was around when it was completed. The name of the cathedral was that of the town where it stood (for instance, Chartres Cathedral) or that of a biblical figure (Notre Dame for instance). A few egomaniacal popes (or bishops) aside, churches were not about their leaders but about the people who worshipped in them. There were religious orders in the Roman Catholic Church that bore the names of their founders, such as the Franciscans, but when those orders survived their founders, it was because they were folded into a hierarchical orderly structure. There were egomaniacal “saints” who drew attention to their “holiness” by public displays of self-mortification (the so-called Stylites, or “Pillar-Saints,” ascetics in the Byzantine Empire who stood on pillars preaching, exposed to the elements, while followers gathered around), but they performed their antics outside of churches. Such individualistic displays didn’t penetrate the liturgical practices led by largely anonymous priests.

The North American evangelical/fundamentalist brand of Christianity is the religious version of the American civil religion: consumerist individualism. Today’s “Stylites” are more often found in private jets, but they still have followers who conflate holiness with success American style—in other words, as measured by money, possessions, numbers, and (above all) celebrity status. The consumer picks a pastor based on where the action seems to be: “Wow, you ought to hear our pastor!” Such “churches” are often founded by a man or woman who started them the way other men and women start a restaurant or a movie company. In Warren’s case, he is pastor of a church called Saddleback, but it’s more properly known as “Rick Warren’s church,” just as the Crystal Cathedral came to be known as “Robert Schuller’s church,” and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association has its founder’s name in the same way as the Ford Motor Company bears the name of its founder.

I can’t argue with Frank here. This is very well put. Unfortunately evangelical readers who need to hear this message might be so put off by Frank’s recent history of attacking evangelicalism that they will not take his advice to heart. Frank has his finger on the pulse of American evangelicalism–a religious movement that has always been prone to follow popular leaders at the expense of building a strong sense of “the church.”

I encourage you to read the rest of the article. My evangelical readers will be both infuriated and enlightened, but I am guessing that such a mixed reaction is exactly what Frank Schaeffer wants.

Thoughts on Rick Warren’s Prayer

Like the rest of the country, I spent the noon hour riveted to the television set. Since I knew I would be contacted by a few media outlets immediately after the speech I was diligently taking notes on the prayers and Obama’s address.

Let’s start with Rick Warren. After all of the controversy surrounding his choice to deliver this prayer I thought Warren did everything he could to take the attention off of himself. It was classic Warren. He tried to be as inclusive as possible, stressing themes of compassion, care for the planet, justice, and God’s love for everyone. He even quoted from the Qur’an. (“You are the compassionate, the merciful one…”).

Of course many who opposed Proposition 8 (which Warren supported) will perceive some of these words as shallow, but I do think they represented Warren and his ministry. The prayer separated Warren from the leaders of the Christian Right and reflected the values of a younger generation of evangelical Christians. Moreover, they echoed, at least in a general and abstract sense, the major themes of Obama’s faith-based initiatives and how the new president thinks about the relationship between faith and policy.

There was also a part of this prayer that called to mind eighteenth-century fast days during the American Revolution. Warren asked God to forgive the people of the country for its selfishness and consumerism. Many Christian republicans such as John Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, John Adams, and Philip Vickers Fithian (yes, Fithian!) believed that national confession might save the republic from its difficulties.

This was the first time in history that an inaugural prayer ended with the Lord’s Prayer. I found this interesting for a few reasons.

First, it made the prayer an explicitly Christian one. This, of course, was reinforced by his choice to pray in the name of Jesus. There was some controversy about his decision to pray in the name of Jesus, but by doing so he did not depart from the way most inaugural prayers have ended.

Second, for Christians it turned the prayer from a civic one to a spiritual one. The Lord’s Prayer, of course, transcends the nation. It brings those who recite it into a global community of Christians praying in the way in which Jesus taught them to pray.

Third, Warren’s use of the Lord’s Prayer was particularly fascinating when one thinks about the context in which Jesus first uttered it in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6 Jesus is rebuking the Jewish teachers of the law for praying in public so that they could be seen by others and draw attention to themselves. What is an inaugural prayer if not a public prayer to be seen by others? Warren knows that this is not how Jesus taught Christians to pray. Instead, Jesus tells Christians to go into their closet and pray. And instead of babbling “like the pagans do,” they should pray the prayer that the early Church would come to call the “Our Father.” Warren may not have been in the closet, but by reciting the Lord’s Prayer he made the best of the public role in which he found himself. He reminded Christians how to pray and diffused any attempts to politicize his words.

Finally, there were some evangelical themes in Warren’s prayer. His reference to Jesus “who changed my life” was reminiscent of George W. Bush’s remark about why Jesus was his favorite philosopher. The reference to all people being held accountable before God for their actions reflected common evangelical beliefs about God’s judgment.

Stay tuned–some thoughts on Obama’s speech are coming right up.

Does Rick Warren Represent the "Black American Soul" on Gay Marriage?

The buzz over Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to give the inaugural prayer continues. Readers of my op-ed in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer are filling my inbox and the Inquirer on-line comments board with their reactions. The commentators on the message board stopped writing directly about my argument sometime around 7:00am this morning. Since then the comment board (76 comments and counting) has turned into a forum for bashing Warren and his supposedly intolerant views.

One thing is clear: there are a lot of people, particularly in the LGBT community, who feel Obama has betrayed them. It is understandable that they are lashing out.

In my opinion, the New Republic has offered the best coverage of the Obama-Warren controversy. I have already commented here on the Alan Wolfe’s thought provoking piece. Today, the NR has included articles by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne (it is actually a reprint of his regular Post column) and Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter.

Dionne’s article, “Big Tent,” make perfect sense. Like Wolfe, Dionne understands that Rick Warren is not your run of the mill member of the Religious Right. He has been at the forefront of a move to expand the evangelical agenda beyond opposition to gay marriage and abortion. He wants that agenda to include the fight against poverty, the war on global AIDS, and a concern with global warming. Dionne rightly asks Warren to apologize for comparing gays to pedophiles, but because of Warren’s commitment to social justice, Dionne believes that “inviting Warren (to pray) opens more doors than it closes.”

Dionne sees the irony in the liberal attacks on Warren. He writes:

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.

Part of this irony, at least as I see it, is that prior to his support of Proposition 8 Rick Warren was a media darling. He was an evangelical that even some liberals could stomach. He was heralded as a new sort of evangelical who transcended party politics and was sympathetic to the concerns of liberals. This reputation has now been tarnished a bit, but Dionne reminds us that Warren is still the kind of guy who Obama should keep close. As I argued in today’s Inquirer, I think Dionne is on the mark here.

John McWhorter, an African-American conservative and an Obama supporter in the 2008 election, approaches the Obama-Warren controversy from a different perspective. In his essay “Into the Fold,” McWhorter argues that “Rick Warren is every bit as much in line with the black American soul as his fellow inaugural performer, Aretha Franklin.” He reminds us that 70% of black voters in California joined Rick Warren in their support of Proposition 8 and thus suggests that Rev. Joseph Lowery, the pro-choice, pro gay marriage African American pastor who will pray the closing prayer at the inauguration, does not represent all African-Americans on social issues.

McWhorter describes how many progressives probably feel about the large number of African-Americans opposed to gay marriage:

No doubt, given the moral triumph of the Civil Rights revolution in teaching us to rise against bigotry, many blacks’ turfy resistance to gay people portraying their cause as a Civil Rights struggle is, frankly, embarrassing.

Today in the Inquirer I wondered why liberals did not raise opposition to Billy Graham’s long history of inauguration prayers and sermons. McWhorter offers an equally compelling, albeit hypothetical, situation. Would there be as much outrage if Obama had chosen someone like T.D. Jakes to give the inaugural prayer? He writes:

Suppose Obama had invited black megastar preacher T.D. Jakes instead. Jakes heads a 30,000 member Dallas church, reaches millions more with the television show The Potter’s Touch, and was designated “perhaps the most influential black leader in America” by The Atlantic. His church runs outreach programs as well as anti-poverty efforts in Africa. Yet like Warren, Jakes dissociates himself from those who “support abortion, homosexuality and other things I see as unscriptural.”

Still, I suspect that progressives’ reaction to Jakes‘ inclusion would be vastly less indignant. Surely the justification for that view would not be that black people, shall we say, “cling to” religion because of the exigencies of their past and present. No–there would be a sense that for a black preacher, views like Jakes’s were something to let pass as “diverse,” unsurprising in a pastor of any color, with his presence as an articulate and inspiring figure in black America more important than ideological details at such a momentous event. Why must Warren be fumigated against, then? Because as a white person, he’s supposed to know better? What other difference between Warren and Jakes is so crucial?

Both Dionne and McWhorter give us a lot to think about. Both of their pieces move beyond polemics and Warren-bashing to bring some thoughtful commentary to this debate.

Alan Wolfe on What Rick Warren’s Acceptance of Obama’s Invitation Really Means

Alan Wolfe is optimistic about a future progressive turn among American evangelicals.

Writing in today’s New Republic, Wolfe sees Rick Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s invitation to pray at the inauguration as a sign that evangelicals are moving out of their own secluded subculture and into the mainstream of American (political?) culture. For Wolfe, Warren’s willingness to accept Obama’s invitation is more important than Obama offering it. (Despite what many liberals and members of the LGBT community seem to think). Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s invitation, according to Wolfe, will (and has already) resulted in backlash from the more conservative wing of American evangelicalism. Wolfe’s hope is that “Obama’s election will lead the more extreme right-wing Christians to purge their ranks of people such as (Richard) Cizek (sic)–and Warren. Maybe we should encourage them to do so, for this will weaken them politically by drawing them even further from the center.”

I am struck by four things about Wolfe’s short piece.

First, Wolfe understands, unlike much of the recent press coverage, that Warren, despite his opposition to gay marriage and support of California’s Proposition 8, is indeed a different kind of evangelical than those who associate with the Religious Right. Warren represents evangelicals concerned with cultural and political engagement in a way strikingly different from folks like Dobson, Falwell, and Robertson. He represents evangelicals concerned with the poor, global suffering, health care, and climate control. Warren does see eye-to-eye with the Religious Right on gay marriage, as most evangelicals do, but he stands more for the future of the movement than its past. This may seem like splitting hairs, but the difference is important. It goes a long way toward explaining why Warren accepted Obama’s invitation.

Second, I think Wolfe, who seems somewhat giddy about the way that Warren’s acceptance of Obama’s offer to pray has divided evangelicals, is overly optimistic about evangelicals changing their minds about gay marriage and other social issues. Wolfe has studied evangelicals, but I am not sure he really knows them. The Christian college where I teach (a place where Wolfe will be visiting in the spring) has recently been addressing the question of Christian homosexuals. In fact, there have been some members of the student body who have been open about their homosexuality in the college newspaper. But despite these isolated cases, most college students I encounter at a Christian college (and I might add, a Christian college often accused by conservative evangelicals as being too “liberal”) still uphold traditional views of marriage and would be opposed to thinking about this social institution any other way.

Third, I DO think that Wolfe’s accomodation thesis has some merits. Evangelicals, remember, are Protestants. And ever since the Reformation Protestants have felt free to change their interpretation of the Bible on a whim. Evangelicals have made this an art form. Wolfe, in other words, has evangelical history on his side. The story of American evangelicalism has always, as historians such as Nathan Hatch and Mark Noll have suggested, been one of cultural accomodation. (I make a similar argument, drawing from Noll and others, in The Way of Improvement Leads Home). I just think, as I argued in the previous paragraph, accomodation on gay marriage is going to take a lot longer than Wolfe projects.

Fourth, Wolfe writes as if Rick Warren, as an evangelical pastor, is breaking new ground by accepting Obama’s invitation to pray. “Warren’s decision to accept an invitation from a liberal president,” Wolfe notes, “is as clear a symbol of the entry of evangelicals into mainstream culture as one can imagine.” If this is the case, then what does Wolfe make of Billy Graham’s decision to pray at both of Bill Clinton’s inauguration ceremonies? (Graham was also a part of Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural festivities). Clinton may not have been as “liberal” as Obama, but he was certainly pro-choice, pro-gay, and, if I remember correctly, drew intense heat for it from the evangelical community.

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?