It is, after all, just a prayer
Barack Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration understandably has angered some of the president-elect’s supporters. But Obama was convincing Thursday in arguing that his invitation to the evangelical pastor, who opposes abortion and backed Proposition 8, didn’t constitute an endorsement of Warren’s views on gay marriage or any other issue.
History shows that the views of inauguration preachers aren’t a reliable guide to the policies of the presidents on whom they invoke God’s blessing. At John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, the invocation was delivered by Cardinal Richard Cushing, the archbishop of Boston. But given Kennedy’s pledge of strict separation of church and state during the campaign, it would have been foolish to assume that Cushing’s participation signaled an endorsement by the Kennedy administration of “pro-Catholic” policies such as government aid to parochial schools.
Billy Graham, who delivered the invocation at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, was decidedly more conservative than the president he prayed for, but Graham was such a fixture at presidential inaugurations that Clinton naturally included him. (So eminent was Graham that in 2001, when he was too ill to attend George W. Bush’s inauguration, the president-elect tapped his son Franklin Graham to deliver the invocation.)
So it isn’t unprecedented for Obama to disagree with the pastor who will pray at his inauguration, as he does on both abortion and Proposition 8 (although Obama does agree with Warren that marriage is between a man and a woman). As he said Thursday, the invitation continues a dialogue with evangelical Christians that began when Warren invited Obama to appear before his congregation at Saddleback Church. And as the author of the bestselling “The Purpose Driven Life,” Warren has provided inspiration to many Christians, and others, who may not share all of his views.
Finally, Warren is among a group of younger evangelicals who, without renouncing traditional views about abortion and sexuality, have expanded their mission to include environmental stewardship and efforts to eradicate poverty and AIDS. It’s because of such views that Obama can credibly include him in his effort to bring Americans together despite differences about social issues.
These explanations won’t salve the hurt felt by gays and lesbians over Warren’s prominent role in the inauguration, even if (as is likely) the prayer he offers is unobjectionable. But those who oppose Obama’s choice must be careful not to exaggerate its importance.