If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Rick Warren, Obama, church and state

Yesterday morning I heard on NPR that Obama has chosen Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration on January 20, 2009. Warren is not a moderate, although he might like to appear to be such. He is definitely a religious and political conservative and theologically a fundamentalist. Warren and I came out of the same fundamentalist Southern Baptist roots. We attended California Baptist College in Riverside together in the early 70's. I had close friends who attended Saddleback Church when it was first forming and they had to set up chairs in a school every Sunday for services. I looked on in interest as Warren built a megachurch from the ground up.

Warren has accomplished much since then and should be commended as a popular communicator, evidenced by the amazing popularly of The Purpose Driven Life. He also has become more open to social issues in the manner of many "new Evangelicals." Warren has been involved in the issues of AIDS and poverty. And yet, he has called Christians who promote a "social gospel" Marxists. His basic theological bent does not seem to have changed significantly since his Cal Baptist days. He has even been described as a "friendlier version of James Dobson."

The GLBT community is particularly concerned about Obama's choice of Warren. He was a strong promoter of proposition 8 in California. In spite of how he has been portrayed, his position on gays and lesbians is similar to Obama and many people in the U.S., although Obama opposed a consitutional amendment banning gay mariage. Warren says he is okay with equal rights for gays and lesbians, but opposes same-sex marriage (Isn't marriage a right?). At the same time, he has claimed that supporters of equality for gay Americans are out to silence pastors and has compared gay marriage to incest, child abuse, and polygamy. No wonder the GLBT is enfuriated about Obama's choice to showcase Warren, even if it is an appeasement of conservative evangelicals.

Then, one must remember that Obama also chose James Lowery, civil rights leader and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, to be a part of his inauguration ceremony. Although this may not "balance things out" for many people, it does seem to indicate that with both Warren and Lowery at his inauguraion Obama is actually trying to build the wider coalition that was part of his campaign, even including those with whom he doesn't agree.

Although I may have concerns about giving another public platform for fundamentalism, I guess I have another concern that has not been brought to light. As an Anabaptist I am now part of a historic church tradition that has long been critical of the church and state shmoozing with one another. During the 16th century Radical Reformation such alliances fostered the persecution and execution of "pacifist" Anabaptists. So, Anabaptists have kept a critical distance between themselves and the state, even though in more recent years Anabaptist groups have engaged in public and political action and others have bought into the conservative, Evangelical agenda.

My concern for Warren's platform at the Obama inauguration has more to do with the dangers inherent in getting too warm and cozy with politicians and the state, such as was the case with another preacher from Warren's ecclesial tradition, Billy Graham, pastor to the presidents. Graham had a close relationship with Richard Nixon. He supported Nixon's policies on the Vietnam War. In April 1989 a memo from twenty years earlier emerged that was drafted from Graham to Nixon after a visit to missionaries in Vietnam. He advocated to Nixon a policy of stepping up the war. This was a dangerous "church and state" relationship.

So, my cautions about Warren and the Obama inauguration have to do with the potential of another uncritical relationship developing between the church and state and the legitimization of conservative political policies. We have seen the damage that has been done with coalitions of conservative and fundamentalist Christians and politicians and what they have done to the name of Christianity. In my opinion, there is probably much more of a need for Obama to distance himself from Warren than from his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright.

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