Rick Warren: a pastor we can’t believe in

Wendy Kaminer recalls her run-ins with (and creepy emails from) the right-wing preacher who is giving the invocation at Obama's inauguration.

Wendy Kaminer

Topics USA

Satirists and dyspeptics who mourn the departure of our clueless forty-third president and his gang of hacks and bastards have reason to rejoice in the New Year. The solemnity of Barack Obama’s inauguration and the predictable awesomeness of his oratory will be leavened by the presence of preachers, including, most notably, vain and unctuous right-wing pastor Rick Warren, delivering the invocation at Obama’s request. This is to the dismay of many progressives, who were not mollified by the choice of civil rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery to deliver a benediction.

Gay people were especially enraged, given Warren’s role in passing a constitutional ban on gay marriage in California last year and his implicit comparisons of homosexuality to incest. Warren denies his apparent antipathy to gays: ‘My wife and I had dinner at a gay couple’s home two weeks ago. So I’m not [a] homophobic guy, okay’, he insisted, several years ago. His recent protestations of love for gay people have been equally clumsy: he has served gay protesters ‘water and donuts’, he explained. Meanwhile, Obama responded to the anger over Warren’s selection by asking gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to deliver an invocation in a pre-inaugural event at the Lincoln memorial. Reverend Sharon Watkins, leader of a small liberal Protestant denomination, the Disciples of Christ, will deliver a sermon at a post inaugural prayer service.

If Jews, Muslims and members of other minority faiths objected to the selection of four Christian clergy to help usher the new president into office, they kept their objections to themselves, and Obama was spared the obligation of finding roles for a rabbi, imam or Buddhist monk (depriving us of an ecumenical spectacle). He’s had the luxury of ignoring atheists, agnostics and other secularists who oppose including any sectarian religious leaders in inaugural (and other official) events, whether or not they favour gay rights. A group of non-believers filed a federal lawsuit challenging the religiosity of the inauguration; it’s not the first time they’ve filed this loser of a lawsuit – and it won’t be the last.

There’s nothing new about politicians paying homage to God and majoritarian religious beliefs. In fact, members of the general public are less religious – or more willing to acknowledge their irreligiosity – than members of Congress, only one of whom has come out publicly as an atheist (California Democrat Pete Stark). Only five members of the new Congress decline to specify a religious affiliation, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, compared to 16 per cent of adult Americans who describe themselves as unaffiliated.

Given the reflexive religiosity of our politicians, Rick Warren’s role in the inauguration is only remarkable because of his association with the politics and cultural values of the Bush administration: he doesn’t quite represent the change in which enthusiastic Obama supporters were led to believe. But Warren’s inaugural presence is one indicator of the ‘post-partisanship’ likely to characterise the new administration, which may prove difficult to distinguish from the centrism of administrations past. Obama justified appointing Warren as his inaugural invocator-in-chief as a gesture of inclusiveness. Warren’s own notion of inclusion has its limits, considering his belief that millions of his heretical fellow citizens are going to hell. But for Obama, inclusiveness is political not theological, obviously, and entirely consistent with a symbolic appeal to millions of people who didn’t vote for him that offends millions of people who did.

Besides, despite Warren’s extreme social and religious conservatism – reflected in his denouncement of stem cell research, reproductive choice and homosexuality, and his belief that only good Christians are bound for glory (a belief not shared by a majority of all Americans or even all American Christians, according to Pew) – he is widely regarded as a moderate evangelical by the mainstream press and centrist intellectuals, whom he has assiduously courted with his aggressively advertised devotion to alleviating poverty and AIDS in Africa.

Warren’s prevention efforts, however, do not include support for the distribution of condoms, and his commitment to the social gospel is apparently not as strong as his call to service in the Culture War: in 2004, in an election eve message to his millions of followers (that barely skirted IRS rules against preachers engaging in partisan politics), Warren described God’s positions on social programmes and war as ‘debatable’ for ‘Bible-believing Christians’, but he singled out as ‘non-negotiable’ five issues that should determine the votes of good Christians: abortion rights, stem cell research, gay marriage, cloning, and assisted suicide.

In a subsequent 2005 email exchange with Warren, I wondered why God was clear about his ‘non-negotiable’ positions on the Culture War but equivocal about war and social programmes: ‘Does God really care more about gay marriage than the obligation to alleviate human suffering?’, I asked. Not surprisingly, I received no response.

My correspondence with Warren was brief and followed a relatively critical 2005 article about him that I published in The Nation (which some of his detractors considered excessively kind). I described his best-selling religious self-help book, The Purpose Driven Life (which he pointedly described as ‘the bestselling book in the world for the last three years’) as childish and platitudinous and questioned his commitment to religious pluralism and civil liberty for all.

A few months later, on the occasion of Yom Kippur (which I do not observe), I received an email from Warren assuring me of his personal love and friendship, and seeking my forgiveness ‘for any ways that I may have ever unknowingly hurt you. Your article showed a lot of hurt by, and fearfulness of, what you think I represent … I want you to know that I would like to be your friend. I thank God for you, for your talent at writing, and I ask you, on this sacred day, to forgive me.’

Warren even took it upon himself to ask forgiveness for ‘all the hurt’ he assumed had been inflicted on me by anti-Semitic ‘so-called Christians’. He did not tell me that he and his wife had recently dined at the home of a Jewish couple, but he did note that he was ‘recently invited to speak at the University of Judaism to a gathering of US Rabbis’. He concluded by assuring me that I was in his prayers and his heart: ‘I respect you, thank God for you, and I am praying for God to bless you this new year. With love in my heart for you.’

Warren didn’t know me; we had met briefly at a conference sponsored by the Pew Forum and disagreed politely. Because I am a mere human being, I have no love in my heart for him, or other people I have briefly or never met. But Warren, it seems, is more like a benevolent deity, who doesn’t simply harbour indifferent goodwill towards others but loves them – loves us all, despite our sins and failings. In fact, Warren’s email to me was apparently a variation of a Yom Kippur form letter that he sent to Jewish journalists.

In any case, I didn’t see myself anywhere in his extravagant protestations of love for me and requests for forgiveness; I saw a reflection of Warren’s self-image, reminiscent of an old Yom Kippur joke: A rabbi prostrates himself before the Ark and says ‘Oh God, I am nothing’. The cantor prostrates himself and says ‘Oh God, I am nothing’. Then the janitor enters, prostrates himself and says, ‘Oh God, I am nothing’. The rabbi nudges the cantor and says ‘so look who thinks he’s nothing’.

Barack Obama seems to think he’s something, and regardless of his faith, or ours, there’s reason to believe that he’s right – or so we fervently hope. Whether America might be good without God is a matter of opinion; that its presidents can be arrogant and incompetent with God is a matter of recent historical fact. Just look who turned out to be nothing.

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer, writer and free speech activist. She is the author most recently of Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU, to be published by Beacon Press in May 2009. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)


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Topics USA


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