Op-Ed: “Religion As A Wedge”: The Rick Warren Debacle

President-elect Obama just proved that twenty years of listening to sermons does not change a person, even if those sermons are by the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Choosing Rev. Dr. Rick Warren for the invocation at the inauguration has managed to anger the LGBT community, African Americans, liberals of all persuasions, and even much of the religious right. By choosing Rev. Warren, Obama exposes, once again, the weakness that plagued his presidential campaign time and time again: an inability to read the nuances of American religious life.

From the Rev. Wright showdown, to the mishandling of Muslim women in hijab during a campaign stop, to the Father’s day respectability speech that angered Jesse Jackson, and finally to his appearance at the Saddleback Civil Forum, Obama and his people have stepped into one religious fracas after another.

For someone who stated that he did not want to use “religion as a wedge or patriotism as a divider” in his June 2008 address after winning the Democratic nomination, I would respectfully submit that the president elect is naive about religious life and leadership.

Tapping Warren for the prime time prayer slot undercuts his progressive stance on several issues. More troubling, it seems like a payback to Warren because of Warren’s invitation to Obama for the AIDS forum at Saddleback church back in 2006. Last time I checked, this sounds like the pay-to-play scheme in Illinois, or that old school church history way of getting out of trouble: Buying an indulgence.

I submit, moreover, that Warren is a poor choice because he has little theological content. He’s marshmallow-lite when it comes to Christianity; the president elect has damaged much of the soaring message of “hope” that he so masterfully preached on during the campaign with this choice. No one has to worry that the prayer will be especially memorable, or soaring of speech. (Perhaps that’s what the inaugural committee really wants!) Warren has not distinguished himself in this regard. Rather, Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life has been the catapult to motivate people to find their purpose, and to realize that “it’s not all about you.”

I must admit, after watching Warren make James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and other religious right leaders appear irrelevant within the last two years, it makes me want to read the book. Talk about finding a purpose! Warren holds many, if not all, of the same beliefs as James Dobson and others on the right regarding sexuality and scripture, but he is a lot more effective because he has made his presence benignly ubiquitous. Rev. Warren is the new king of the evangelical hill, and this inaugural invocation is the crown. Warren may have a purpose, but it’s an old wine, rewrapped in a new fancy wineskin.

If the invocation is about symbolism, rather than getting a prayer through, as a church mother would say, Warren as a symbol is a key to where the president elect wants to take the nation. Maybe the presidential plan is to turn us into a purpose-driven nation like Rwanda.

I realize this is Obama’s choice to make, but seriously, isn’t there anyone, anyone else to pray?

Because where our nation sits right now, the last thing we need is someone who can’t see the masses of people who have lost their purpose because of losing their jobs, homes, and livelihoods due to the right-wing ideologies of the past eight years. Our nation is crumbling literally before our eyes, and we can’t afford to have weak prayers made by sycophants to any deity at this point.

I plan on watching the inauguration, but any theological content will come either from Rev. James Lowery’s benediction or from Aretha Franklin’s singing. As for prayer, if you want to hear some real prayers in Washington DC, go to any Watch Night Service the night before the inauguration. I guarantee you, you’ll hear some folks with real pain and troubles calling out for help, rather than prayers coming from whitewashed tombs.

Anthea Butler [@AntheaButler] is a Contributing Editor to Religion Dispatches. Her forthcoming book, in’The Gospel According To Sarah: How Sarah Palinin’’s Tea Party Angels are Galvanizing the Religious Right will be out in 2013.