Courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle
by Joe Garofoli, Chronicle Staff Writer
In addition to knowing President-elect Barack Obama for a decade, the Rev. Jim Wallis would seem like the type of nationally known, centrist, evangelical pastor chosen to give the inaugural invocation. Instead, Obama is still hearing criticism for inviting the Rev. Rick Warren, a conservative Orange County pastor who opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights, to take that marquee inaugural position.
But choosing Warren makes long-term political sense, say Wallis and others. Even though Warren's support of California's Proposition 8 and comments made in a Beliefnet.com interview last month equating gay marriage to pedophilia drew widespread criticism from some of Obama's core supporters, analysts say Warren is symbolic of a new political reality.
"White evangelicals are no longer an extension of the Republican Party," said the Rev. Sam Rodriguez, president of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference and pastor at a Sacramento church.
Plus, the choice is philosophically consistent with how Obama has been reaching out to opposing constituencies during his transition period. On Tuesday night, he dined at the home of conservative columnist George Will at a party attended by conservative commentators like William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks. The next day, the Democrat hosted a meeting at his transition office with centrist and left-wing commentators ranging from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow to TheAtlantic.com's Andrew Sullivan to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne.
And Obama has invited V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay man to be a consecrated bishop in the Episcopal Church, to pray at an inaugural ceremony today. Meanwhile, gay rights supporters planned to demonstrate this morning outside Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest to protest his opposition to same-sex marriage.
"The issue isn't Rick Warren per se," said Wallis, who co-hosted a 2006 conference where Obama made one of his first major speeches on politics and his faith. "It is very Obama-like to reach out to conservative evangelicals who didn't vote for him. Whether people like Rick Warren or not is not the issue."
Instead, the Warren pick is post-election evidence that one political trend will continue: Both parties will actively pursue evangelicals younger than 40 - and particularly those under 30. Warren, author of the 30 million-selling "The Purpose-Driven Life" and pastor of a 20,000-member Orange County megachurch, is a nationally recognized avatar of this new generation of conservative evangelicals.
That pursuit paid dividends in November for Obama, who won votes from 32 percent of white evangelicals between 18 and 31 years old. In 2004, Democrat John Kerry had support from 16 percent of that demographic slice. Obama won more of them by talking about how he came to his Christian faith, analysts said, and his campaign and other liberal organizations increased outreach to conservative Christians. In states like Colorado, where supportive organizations like the Matthew 25 Network purchased TV ads promoting liberal religious themes, Obama improved his share of white evangelical votes by 14 percent, according to Steven Waldman, the Beliefnet.com editor in chief who conducted the interview in which Warren made his controversial statement.
While young evangelicals may oppose abortion rights and same-sex marriage, they are not defined by those issues, as was their parents' generation, which was shepherded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson.
"Rick Warren is not Jerry Falwell," said Bill McKinney, president of the progressive-leaning Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. "He does not demonize people who disagree with him. Warren at least gives the impression that he isn't like that."
"On balance it is a smart pick," Waldman said. "Obama is doing something dramatic to reach out across ideological lines."
But others, like Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, described Warren as "Jerry Falwell in a Hawaiian shirt." While Obama's team has cited Warren's support for combatting AIDS and poverty in Africa, a DailyBeast.com story this month showed Warren's tight connection to a Ugandan pastor named Martin Ssempa. Ssempa has been linked with crusading against homosexuals in Uganda and lobbying against condom use in the promotion of a safe-sex message there. (Warren declined an interview request from The Chronicle.)
But Obama is banking on the belief that politically attuned conservative evangelicals in the under-40 generation are more interested in issues like human trafficking, genocide in Darfur, the environment, and crime and education in their own communities than the previous generation's issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Like their secular peers, they are Internet-savvy and "more globalized than their parents," Wallis said. "They care what's going on around the world, and they want to do something about it."
That generation is also much more ethnically and racially diverse, including 16 million Hispanic born-again Christians, according to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.
But others wonder how much conservative evangelicals have actually changed politically. Last month, Richard Cizik - who has strongly encouraged evangelicals to embrace global warming as a top issue and a spiritual calling - resigned from his position as vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals. His transgression: On National Public Radio he said, "I would willingly say that I believe in civil unions." That is contrary to what his now-former organization believes.
"When they fired Rich Cizik, they fired the future," Wallis said. "He was speaking to a new generation about issues like climate change."
So did the Obama camp not do its homework on Warren? Did it underestimate the passion of gay-rights supporters, particularly after the passage of Prop. 8 to outlaw same-sex marriage in California? Geoff Kors, executive director of the civil rights organization Equality California, declined an invitation to the inauguration, saying he "cannot be part of a celebration that highlights and gives voice to someone who advocated repealing rights from me and millions of other Californians."
In a letter to Obama, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, a large national gay-rights organization, said that "by inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table." On Thursday, Faith in America, an organization that works with religious groups and others to expose what it calls "religion-based bigotry against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people," released a project called "Can You Understand the Harm?" - a collection of videos and letters to Warren about his comments.
The Courage Campaign, an online liberal organizing hub, has invited Warren to debate Prop. 8 and same-sex marriage with the Rev. Eric Lee of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. On Monday, they will keep heat on the issue with an event in Washington to highlight their challenge.
When Obama invited Warren, "was it a misstep? No. Both short term and long term, it is smart," said the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference's Rodriguez. "Politically, Obama is looking at 2010 and 2012. It's a win-win-win."
But any positive feelings Obama generates among evangelicals by picking Warren won't last if he pushes policies that evangelicals find offensive.
One example: Obama wants legislation to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity or expression. Rodriguez said evangelicals want religious organizations to be exempt from its provisions. If that doesn't happen, he predicted that Obama would lose a lot of goodwill - and, eventually, support.
"This is a very fluid group," said Rodriguez, who described himself as an "independent moderate," but declined to state who he voted for; his wife led a prayer at the Republican National Convention. "This group is not going to be like white evangelicals, which was part of the Republican Party. This group is more interested in issues."
The new leaders of evangelical politics
Here are some evangelical pastors who are emerging as national leaders. While some oppose gay marriage and abortion rights, they are being courted by conservative and progressive political leaders because their interest in social justice topics extends beyond those issues.
The Rev. Jim Wallis:
The Washington pastor, leader of Sojourners, a social justice religious organization, and best-selling author ("God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It") held events at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions to seek common ground between the parties on abortion and poverty.
The Rev. Sam Rodriguez:
The Sacramento pastor supported Prop. 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, and has been an advocate for immigration reform and social justice issues. The president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference has been courted by national political leaders ranging from Karl Rove to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Pro-Bush conservative and former powerful lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals drew criticism from the right by asserting that "creation care" - a form of environmentalism that is rooted in the Scriptures - should be a political priority for evangelicals. He resigned in December after he mentioned his support for same-sex civil unions in a radio interview.
The Rev. Rob Bell:
Michigan megachurch pastor, author of "Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith" and star of a popular online video series, the 38-year-old Bell focuses more on helping the poor than on wedge political issues.
The Rev. Joel Hunter:
Evangelical pastor in Florida supported a same-sex ban in his state, but also gave a benediction at the Democratic National Convention last year.
The founder of the Christian pop-culture magazine Relevant is wooed by both parties. Was supposed to give a benediction at the Democratic National Convention, but bowed out at the last minute. In his blog he wrote: "It wouldn't be wise for me to be seen as picking a political side when I've consistently said both sides are right in some areas and wrong in some areas." Along with Cizik, was part of a group of Christian leaders that met with President-elect Barack Obama in June.