Invocation Irritation: Controversy Over Rick Warren Won't Go Away

Rick Warren has shown himself to be just another Religious Right hard-liner.

The controversy over Barack Obama's decision to ask Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration refuses to die down. Discontent over the matter continues to simmer around the Web, and now the pundits are weighing in.

This morning, two Washington Post columnists commented – coming to radically different conclusions.

E.J. Dionne sees Obama's decision as a savvy political move, a way to position himself well with a rising evangelical pastor who is poised to lead a new generation of religious activists who might broaden the agenda of conservative evangelicals beyond the traditional concerns of gays and abortion.

"One need not be too pious about any of this," Dionne writes. "Both Warren and Obama are shrewd leaders who sense where the political winds are blowing. Warren understands that a new generation of evangelicals has tired of an excessively partisan approach to religion. Evangelical Christianity's reach will be limited if the tradition is seen as little more than an extension of the politics of George Bush, Karl Rove and Sarah Palin."

Richard Cohen, on the other hand, believes Obama is embracing a bigot. Cohen applauds Obama's attempts to reach out to all constituencies, but he argues that giving Warren such a high-profile role is a mistake, in light of comments by Warren comparing gays to pedophiles and polygamists.

Cohen noted that in defending his choice of Warren, Obama said, "We can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans."

Cohen writes, "Sounds nice. But what we do not 'hold in common' is the dehumanization of homosexuals. What we do not hold in common is the belief that gays are perverts who have chosen their sexual orientation on some sort of whim. What we do not hold in common is the exaltation of ignorance that has led and will lead to discrimination and violence."

I respect Dionne but have to side with Cohen on this one. Last week I appeared on MSNBC's "Countdown with Keith Olbermann" to discuss this issue and made the point that Warren is just another Religious Right activist in the style of Jerry Falwell.

Sure, Warren may talk a good line about the poor, but people tend to forget that just a few years ago, he opined that there are five "non-negotiable" issues on which all Christians should base their vote: abortion, same-sex marriage, stem-cell research, human cloning and right-to-die laws. (Note that care for the poor does not appear on this list.)

Warren laid down the law: Any politician who supported any one of these things was not to be voted for, period and end of discussion. In the true style of Pat Robertson and James Dobson, Warren insisted that the issues weren't even up for debate. God – I mean, Rick – had spoken.

Thus, Warren celebrated the fact that Al Gore was not permitted to take office in 2000 and outright endorsed George W. Bush in 2004. Warren refrained from endorsing this year, probably because he could sense which way the political winds were blowing. Many observers, however, believe Warren's presidential forum at Saddleback Church was designed to give John McCain a boost.

If Obama wants an evangelical presence at his inauguration, there are any number of truly moderate evangelical ministers he could have tapped. Through his rhetoric and dogmatic style, Warren has shown himself to be just another Religious Right hard-liner. His is the wrong voice to kick off the administration of a leader who, during a long and grueling campaign, instilled hope in so many Americans.