Last August I wrote a column critical of Rick Warren’s decision to host a presidential candidate forum at his Saddleback Church.
My reasoning then was that America’s crisis is moral ambiguity. I argued that Pastor Warren would only contribute to this ambiguity by hosting candidates with opposing views on issues such as abortion and homosexuality and presenting himself as a neutral moderator.
Only Barack Obama would gain, I felt, being showcased as an acceptable candidate by one of the nation’s best-known evangelical pastors. If John McCain wanted to clarify his social conservative credentials, he didn’t need to go to Rick Warren’s church with Barack Obama to do it.
Evangelicals and other Christians listened as Rick Warren called Obama and McCain “friends” and “patriots” and watched as Warren winced no more than would have Larry King when Sen. Obama said it was above his “pay grade” to consider if and when an unborn child has human rights.
Evangelicals had already been hearing from Warren, and left-leaning pastors like Jim Wallis, that they should broaden their primary concerns beyond sex and abortion.
In retrospect, I cannot prove that I was right. But I think the evidence powerfully supports my claim.
Barack Obama picked up 5 percentage points of the evangelical vote over what John Kerry received in 2004. Those 5 percentage points amounted to about a third of Obama’s winning vote margin over John McCain.
Sure, the Saddleback Forum alone does not explain this shift. But the legitimacy Obama gained that night certainly didn’t hurt.
The largest shift was among 18-29-year-old evangelicals. Obama got 32 percent of their vote – double what John Kerry got.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal after the forum, Warren was oblivious to the vulnerability of this group. The Journal reported, “… as for the notion that younger evangelicals are ready for rebellion against their parents’ ideals, Mr. Warren cites polls showing that the younger evangelical generation is even more concerned about abortion than the older one.” True. But this was only one part of the picture.
In 2007 the Pew Research Center reported that Republican identification among 18-29-year-old white evangelicals had dropped from 55 percent in 2005 to 40 percent.
A survey done by Greenburg Quinlan Rosner Research showed that 26 percent of 18-29-year-old evangelicals, compared to 9 percent of those over 30, support same-sex marriage.
Now, President-elect Obama has invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inaugural. The New York Times calls this an “olive branch to conservative Christian evangelicals,” and many now call Warren this era’s Billy Graham.
An olive branch? Rick Warren helped get Mr. Obama elected, and our president-elect understands that there is still evangelical gold to be mined in the pastor from Saddleback Church.
The Rev. Jeremiah Wright can explain how Barack Obama uses pastors. Obama sat in his church for 20 years, used his words for the title of his best-selling book, then discarded him when he became a political liability.
Regarding the Billy Graham comparison, it challenges even the most creative imagination to picture the Rev. Graham ever hosting a forum for political candidates.
In an interview, Barack Obama recalled a previous invite to Saddleback Church. “I was invited to Rick Warren’s church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion.” I doubt that Billy Graham would see this in the spirit of his own calling to bring the Gospel to all who would listen.
Nor would I see the Rev. Graham signing onto the Evangelical Climate Initiative, as has Rick Warren. This gives Christian cover to the left to raise our energy costs to address still unsubstantiated environmental claims.
But on global warming, Rick Warren and Barack Obama are on the same page. Perhaps these will be the first post-inaugural chits our new president will call in.