Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pastor Rick Warren: Healer or Divider?

Reaching across the aisle is all very fine in principle. But is there such a thing as going too far? What about president-elect Obama’s pick of Reverend Rick Warren, pastor of the 20,000 member Saddleback Church, to deliver the invocation at his inaugural?

Admittedly, Mr. Obama has the right to choose whatever spiritual figure he likes for the role. But the choice angers supporters of gay rights and reproductive freedom. Warren campaigned tirelessly for California’s Proposition 8 striking down gay marriage and opposes a women’s right to an abortion. What message is Obama sending?

Mr. Obama is demonstrating flexibility and bi-partisanship, perhaps. But Rev. Warren didn’t demonstrate much flexibility himself during the general election debate he hosted last August. Instead he tried to pin Obama down on litmus tests dear to the Religious Right. Tell me the exact moment a fetus acquires human rights, Warren demanded. (“Answering that question is above my pay grade,” Obama responded, prompting murmurs of disapproval from the audience.)

The question itself betrays a literalistic mentality without room for nuance or imagination. Warren sees the world in black and white. ”Does evil exist,” he asked both McCain and Obama in that forum, “and if so, do we ignore it, do we negotiate with it, do we contain it, or do we defeat it? Some of the world’s greatest literature, from the book of Job to The Brother’s Karamazov, has grappled with the problem of evil. But Warren expected a sound bite response to his multiple choice question—because it was not a complex issue in his mind. Judging from his performance that night, Warren seems to me to be fundamentalist in his thinking---dividing the world into simplistic categories of right and wrong, saved and unsaved—and condemning to outer darkness those who disagree with his interpretation of the Bible.

On January 20, I’ll be listening closely to Rev. Warren’s prayer. Does it express inclusivity for Americans of all faiths (and for those without any formal religious affiliation)? Or will Warren pick at the wounds Americans have suffered in the very culture wars our new president is trying to transcend?

Whether Obama begins his office on a note of healing or division will depend on the answer.

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