The Meaning of Obama’s Choice of Rick Warren as America’s Pastor-in-Chief

What does his choice of Pastor Rick Warren from Saddleback Church to give the invocation at his inauguration tell us about Barack Obama?


First, it tells us that with Obama, what you’ve seen (and heard) from him is what you’ll get.

Many on the left projected their own politics on to Obama, believing that his explicitly stated socially conservative positions (such as his opposition to same sex marriage) were mere tactical ploys intended to broaden his electoral appeal and assuage the fears of socially conservative voters.

Their thinking (or wishing) was that, once elected, Obama would be free to reveal his true, more socially progressive self.

But Obama’s choice of Rick Warren as America’s new Pastor-in-Chief makes that kind of thinking or hoping obsolete.

Second, it tells us that Obama meant it when he said that he would attempt to create a coalition government, which in our current political climate also means a government tilted more toward the center-right than the center-left.

Rick Warren represents precisely the kind of centrist politics that Obama has embraced and that his administration will pursue.  As the New York Times noted, while Warren is “is an outspoken opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage,” he “has also been one of the most prominent evangelical leaders calling for Christians to expand their agenda and confront global problems like poverty, AIDS, climate change and genocide in Darfur.”


As the Times observed, Obama’s anointment of Warren “positions Mr. Warren to succeed Billy Graham as the nation’s pre-eminent minister” – and means that the social gospel of alleviating poverty and accepting stewardship over the environment will be priorities of the Obama administration.

It should also be noted that on these issues, if not on style, Obama’s adoption of Rick Warren as his new favored pastor is not a great change from his earlier association with Jeremiah Wright, who forcefully opposed the decision of the General Synod of the United Church of Christ to perform same sex marriages, “calling the same-sex marriage issue a distraction that diverted attention from other, more important issues such as health care and poverty.”

On these “more important” issues, Rick Warren can give Obama immense help, and Obama is clearly willing to trade gay and abortion rights in exchange for Warren’s high-profile support for his efforts in the areas of poverty and the environment.

Third, it tells us that those who want a more socially progressive America, especially in regard to gay rights, will not be able to rely on top down change initiated by the Obama administration.  Those who expected the election of Barack Obama to usher in a new America of gay rights, workers rights, single-payer universal heath-care and an end to colonialist wars need to redouble, rather than slacken, their grass-roots efforts.

As Obama said many times during the campaign, real change comes from the bottom, not the top.


2 responses to “The Meaning of Obama’s Choice of Rick Warren as America’s Pastor-in-Chief

  1. Since when does America need a “Pastor-in-Chief”?

    Prior to Billy Graham, the idea that a single religious figure could wield such tremendous influence and clout in the political process was unheard of in this country, and we should remember that. The very idea is offensive to the foundations of American democracy, in breach of the “wall” between religion and government called for by Thomas Jefferson.

    Nobody is disputing that the country needs a transformational, unifying figure that will unite the country during this time of great crisis. But is it so outrageous to suggest that Obama’s supporters, who suffered through eight years of the backwards policies of George Bush, would hope that such a figure would move beyond politicized religion by choosing to refrain from publicly aligning himself with powerful religious figures? Is it truly “wishful thinking” to believe that the first post-Clinton Democrat in the White House would stand up for equal rights for the LGBT community? Can’t Obama maintain a respectful and productive relationship with Pastor Warren without elevating him to a speaker position at his own inauguration?

    Indeed, change does come from the bottom up. But a little institutional buoy from the top is absolutely necessary. We must remember that it was the Supreme Court that gave the civil rights movement a monumental thrust with the landmark case of Brown v. Board; today, those same justices who simply interpreted the Constitution as prohibiting segregation would be labeled “activist judges.”

    The people should not get to vote on civil rights issues, period. End of story. The Supreme Court has already made it abundantly clear in its decision in Loving v. Virginia that marriage is a civil rights issue. Prop 8 is unconstitutional, and Warren’s support of such a mean-spirited measure is an affront to everything Obama’s presidency represents to this country. I fear that, without a little push from those in power, the cause of gay rights may languish for years to come in America.

  2. Pingback: Shout the Good News! Rick Warren’s Conversion | The Liberal OC

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