Purpose driven strife

The Rick Warren dustup teaches us that tolerance needs to go both ways

By Tim Murphy

Well, that wasn’t so bad.

After all the hullabaloo surrounding the Reverend Rick Warren’s invocation at Tuesday’s inauguration, the Orange County mega-pastor took to the podium on the west entrance of the Capitol and offered what amounted to an elongated version of grace. Warren opened his invocation by invoking the “Almighty Lord,” finished with the “Our Father,” and in between covered such controversial issues as keeping the first family safe and securing the common good.

For most of the two million people in attendance and the millions more watching at home, perhaps the only part of his sermon that came anywhere close to “jarring” had nothing to do with anything Warren said, but mainly with how he said it. Specifically, for a man whose charisma and business sense changed the way thousands of Americans go to church, Warren fell remarkably short of anything resembling gravitas. For much of the sermon, Warren sounded as if he might be in physical pain, encapsulated most fully by the primal grunts that passed for “Malia!” and “Sasha!”

Given the events that followed, Warren’s invocation will soon take its place as little more than an historical footnote, next to John Roberts’s flubbed oath (suggested New York Post headline: “Oaf of Office”), Dick Cheney’s temporary incapacitation, and Aretha Franklin’s Delaware-sized hat.

Warren’s invitation to speak and the outcry that followed nevertheless underscore one of the quietest ironies of the last eight years: President Bush’s efforts to bring Evangelical Christians into the political mainstream instead eroded the movement’s public image to little more than a fire-breathing caricature.

From the moment it was announced that Warren would deliver the invocation, criticism of the pastor centered almost exclusively on a single issue—his views on homosexuality. Warren, who supported the California ballot initiative that banned gay marriage, does not allow gays into his church and calls homosexuality a “sin.” His views on the subject are objectionable. But, for that matter, so are those of the Catholic Church, several Supreme Court justices, and a sizable swath of the American public and its representatives in Congress.

But while Warren’s prejudices are harmful, so too are the prejudices he evokes. Critics latched on to Warren’s views on homosexuality not because that’s what defines his approach to the pulpit, but because after a generation of James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, that’s what we’ve been trained to look for. The outcry surrounding Warren had little to do with the man himself; it was a backlash against evangelicalism and megachurch America.

In dismissing Warren, critics missed out on a larger truth. Namely, that Warren, in addition to holding a few outdated beliefs, is also kind of brilliant. He’s sold 23 million copies of his book, A Purpose Driven Life, and his original congregation of 105 has now swelled to encompass 20,000 people at eight satellite locations. Most significantly, he’s moved his church beyond the standard anti-abortion, anti–gay marriage meme (even if his beliefs haven’t changed) and devoted his efforts to mobilizing his ever-expanding community toward combating global poverty and illiteracy. Warren may be intolerant, but he’s more of a community organizer than an agent of intolerance.

On the topic of gay marriage, Warren is on the wrong side of history—as Tuesday’s events demonstrated so clearly, the arc of history is long, but it does bend toward justice. But his—and his church’s—primary missions are all decidedly mainstream. And it’s for these reasons that Warren was invited to Washington, D.C., this week—and why Obama made the right call in extending the invitation.

Warren, his congregation, and millions of evangelical Christians mean well and, often enough, do well, a far cry from the hysterical, monolithic homophobes they’ve been depicted as. With his vast network and an organization that Obama must surely appreciate, Warren can serve as an ambassador to a racially, socially, and geographically diverse faith community largely left out of the Democrats’ “big tent.” Hopefully, the days of the “Christian Coalition” are over. Progressive prejudices should be, too.