In reacting to Barack Obama’s decision to invite Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inaugural, the left has been focusing on Obama’s decision to offer, while the right has been focusing on Warren’s decision to accept.
The right has it right. There are two facets of American evangelicalism that ought to be worrisome to conservatives. One is that evangelicals are breaking out of the comfortable counter-culture they have established for themselves over the years. Historically, they tended to live in their own communities, listen to their own music, shop in their own book stores, and send their children to Christian schools. But now, in part because living amongst people much like themselves helped them gain confidence and connections, a considerable number of evangelicals find themselves holding high-paying jobs and wanting the best for their children. Warren’s Saddleback Church, located in the exurban reaches of Orange County, is emblematic of this change; its members include large numbers of upwardly-mobile professionals fully engaged with the world. It is not easy to turn down Harvard for Wheaton College, let alone Biola (formerly the Bible College of Los Angeles).
Warren’s decision to accept an invitation from a liberal president is as clear a symbol of the entry of evangelicals into mainstream culture as one can imagine. In the conservative Christian subculture, liberals are treated with scorn. In the real world, they control the White House and Congress. How many evangelical preachers will be able to demonize Obama once Mr. Evangelical himself has blessed him? By opposing Warren’s choice with such vehemence, the left seems determined to drive evangelicals back to the world of victimology and conspiracy-mongering. This is not wise.
The other trend in American evangelicalism that should worry conservatives is that, for all their talk of reading the Bible literally, evangelicals are slowly becoming more comfortable with changing their positions on political issues, including hot-button ones such as abortion and gay rights. Evangelicals frequently change their views. They were once firm opponents of slavery who then endorsed segregation and now confess to the sin of racism. They supported religious freedom only to move in the direction of supporting a church establishment even though some remain strict separationists. They will never accept abortion (although they may be open to anti-poverty measures that reduce their frequency). But they could, given their strong commitment to marriage, eventually endorse marriage among gays. (Many younger evangelicals already do.) The more they emerge from their subculture and meet real gay people, including married couples, the sooner they will do so. Warren himself, although he has positioned himself as an alternative to such hard-right activist as James Dobson, is conventionally conservative in his views on social issues. But he knows as well as anyone that the future of his faith belongs to the more open-minded.
Warren’s decision to accept Obama’s invitation comes shortly after the resignation of Richard Cizek from the National Association of Evangelicals for supporting same-sex unions. Although the left may not realize it, Obama’s election will lead the more extreme right-wing Christians to purge their ranks of people such as Cizek--and Warren. Maybe we should encourage them to do so, for this will weaken them politically by drawing them even further from the center. But the better course is to help redraw the political map. This is what both Obama and Warren are doing. They are smarter than their critics on both sides realize.
Alan Wolfe is the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and a contributing editor at The New Republic.
By Alan Wolfe