For Barack Obama to wander from the progressive United Church of Christ to the conservative Saddleback Church, from a prophetic pastor to a placid one in such a short period is a stunning religious-political journey on many levels. This is a journey from a historic church rooted in the abolitionist movement and fundamentally committed to civil and human rights—including gay rights—to a church with little visible connection—save a few recent forays—to the perils of human oppression.
This is a journey from a pastor who has for years unabashedly supported the rights of peoples of differing sexual orientations to one who unabashedly challenges those rights. This is a journey from theological conviction to cultural captivity, from street work to media hype, from preaching to performance, from justice to just-us.
We didn’t expect the President-elect to invite Reverend Wright to the podium to pray January 20th, but his choice of Rick Warren is equally stunning: for its meaning and impact to be nonchalantly rebuffed by Mr. Obama and his we-reach-out-to-everyone team is either amazingly naive or coldly calculating. Let’s be real here: to pray at an inauguration is an honor to be conferred on one who made the day possible, and whose presence signifies and dignifies. Once again the President-elect’s penchant for preachers has immersed him in steaming hot waters as he travels from Brokeback Mountain to Saddleback Church. You’ve won, Mr. Obama. The time for muddling, middling journeys that might enhance your stunning victory is over.
Pastors to Presidents have, it must be said, always been court religionists whose unwillingness or incapacity to speak truth to power was always expected and delivered. They have been limelighters who basked in media attention, preachers who loved a Jesus without justice, prayer without prophetic challenge, “spiritual guidance” without searing gutsiness. It would have been nice to have a pastor pray at this historic inauguration whose name is known only to his or her congregation, whose love of God and the people is unsurpassed, whose hands are dirty from hard work at a second job, who has known struggle and loss, who works the streets and byways, who has never been on television, who welcomes all, and who speaks and preaches boldly from the pulpit and in the community. Maybe next time.
In this respect we ought not be surprised by the invitation to Mr. Warren to pray at the inauguration. And in many respects it’s better to get this matter out of the way now than deal with it later when President Obama’s tough moral, ethical, and political decisions are known to be subject to preacherly placidness: it means truly that there can be no let-up whatsoever in the struggle for justice with and among the peoples whose voices have been heard but not yet heeded. It means that there can be no wavering of commitment in the shining light of a new President who has brought and will bring critical change, but whose audacity still needs to be hardened in the cauldrons of action by faith-filled peoples unfazed by the bright aura, and steeled in the prophetic tradition that does not cater to power or Presidents.