Nearly every Religion Dispatches reader will be, by this point, well-acquainted with the controversy surrounding the presence of Rick Warren on the presidential inauguration program. But what has received less attention is that, before Obama’s invitation to deliver the invocation in DC, Warren was already slated for another improbable performance the day before—as the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. holiday celebration sponsored by the King Center in Atlanta. Less than twenty-four hours before he played a part in anointing our new head of state, in other words, Warren would step into one of the most historic and influential pulpits in the United States: Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father once presided.
I couldn’t swing the inauguration: My dean insists that I teach class, my congressman won’t return my calls, and my teaching assistant refused to give me her ticket to the inaugural ball. So I had to opt for the local version of the culture wars by catching Warren’s appearance here in Atlanta. Luckily, I was able to inveigle noted historian and blogger Ralph Luker into joining me. As we steered through light holiday traffic, Luker and I talked about the tumultuous history of the King children, who are currently in a legal fight with one another over the disposition of Coretta Scott King’s papers—the latest in a series of public disputes that have undermined the credibility of the family. Luker also told me that he wasn’t surprised that the King Center would invite Warren to speak, since the family has shown itself to be comfortable with conservative religious leaders for some time.
Still, as we made our way to the service, it struck me that this was an odd path to be taking to hear America’s most famous mega-preacher. Outside, cordoned-off protesters shouted through megaphones, denouncing Warren’s positions on same-sex marriage, while Starbucks distributed Tazo tea latte samples just outside the church entrance. Inside, in the balcony seats that had been set-aside for non-dignitaries like Ralph and myself, I realized quickly that the service we were attending was as much about celebrating the election of Barack Obama as it was about recalling the history of King himself. Obama T-shirts and buttons were in evidence throughout the audience; my pew neighbor had brought a large wall-hanging with the smiling visage of the still (for one last day) president-elect. These were people who, like me, were happy to be in Ebenezer Baptist, but would have been happier to be in Washington DC.
That seemed to include the speakers as well. Nearly every person at the podium made some reference to Obama’s election and inauguration, usually in a way that brought the crowd to thunderous applause. This was even true when the speaker was cautioning against mistaking Obama’s election for the fulfillment of King’s social vision. As Isaac Newton Ferris, King’s nephew and the CEO of the King Center put it, “The dream was not about an individual or a race obtaining power.”
Ferris may have been right, but this was a crowd ready to celebrate the beginning of the Obama age. Speaker after speaker explained how, as one of them said, “the dream of Martin Luther King gave birth to the hope of Barack Obama.” Jimmy Carter’s grandson spoke with tenderness about taking his two-year-old child with him to vote for Obama. A spritely sixth-grader delivered a roof-raising essay comparing the virtues of Coretta Scott King to Michelle Obama. Even Georgia’s senior senator, Republican Saxby Chambliss, noted the symmetry between King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial, some forty-five years ago, and Obama’s impending inaugural on the West Lawn of the Capitol.
Meanwhile, to someone as keenly observant as Ralph, what the Obama inauguration also meant for the King holiday service was a depletion of luminaries. Nearly every Atlanta dignitary with a shred of ambition had already departed for DC. Those few who remained seemed to be checking their watches, making sure that they wouldn’t miss their afternoon flights to Reagan National.
Warren, the Goofy, Goateed High School English Teacher
Finally, after more than two hours of tracing the path from the bus boycott to “Yes, we can,” it was Warren time. To his credit, Farris introduced Warren by addressing directly the controversies surrounding his stands against same-sex marriage and abortion. He noted that Warren’s stances on poverty, AIDS, and global warming fit well into the King Center’s conception of the “social gospel”—and that the “Beloved Community” that the Center cultivates “includes both liberal and conservative Christians.” He also quoted a line from Martin Luther King’s famous Riverside Church speech denouncing the war in Vietnam, in which King states that “if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” Perhaps most interestingly, Farris suggested that the line played both ways—not only could Warren’s opposition learn from the Saddleback pastor, but also that Warren might learn something from the people to whom he was preaching.
Farris’ call for civility was not enough to deter a protester who interrupted Warren’s opening with chants of “Rick Warren is a bigot!” before being hurried from the sanctuary. Warren refused to acknowledge the fracas, never breaking stride in the opening gambit of a conversational sermon that lasted about fifty minutes. I had never really listened to Warren at length before, but what struck me during this time is how his charisma stems, in part, from his unthreatening presence. He’s overweight, but not so much so that one becomes uncomfortable looking at him. His goatee makes him look a little goofy, like a high school English teacher. While he raises his voice, he never seems to give over the religious ecstasy.
Much of his sermon seemed to revolve around evangelical one-liners: “Are you available for God?”, “There may be accidental parents, but there are no accidental children”, and “Only hurt people hurt people.” It’s easy to make this all sound trivial, but the Ebenezer Baptist audience seemed to receive it well, and Warren clearly understood where he was. He riffed on the movement anthem “We Shall Overcome” by noting several ways that the word “overcome” was used in scripture; he compared King to the figure of Joseph the Dreamer in Genesis; and he talked about King’s own sense of Christian mission. He managed to address, in all of these cases, both the movement and the message in ways that seemed to be knowledgeable without becoming presumptuous.
He also talked a good deal about Rick Warren—about the history of his ministry, and especially about his outreach to AIDS orphans in Africa. What was remarkable, in fact, was that he managed to water down the social vision of both Rick Warren and Martin Luther King into something bland and universally palatable. He talked a great deal of King’s fight against racism without mentioning King’s protest against Vietnam or his critique of capitalism that would inspire the Poor People’s Campaign. He talked about God’s love of diversity—60,000 species of beetles!—but never explained how that squared with his intolerance of homosexuality.
He also mentioned, more than once, that devotion to Christian principles could sometimes be unpopular, comments that seemed implicitly directed at those who had criticized him in recent months. I had those comments in mind when, near the end of his sermon, he set forth one of the significant insights of the entire service:
“Do you think,” he said, “that Dr. Martin Luther King was popular when he was doing what he was doing? They hated him! They said all kinds of stuff about him. ‘He’s a communist!’ and everything else that they could throw at him…. You’ve got to decide who you are going to impress.”
Warren, of course, is absolutely right. It was not simply the color of his skin that precluded King from being invited to any presidential inauguration in his own lifetime. It was the challenge of King’s call to social justice, a call that remains daunting in our own time.
Warren has sold more than 30 million copies of The Purpose Driven Life, his Saddleback congregation runs into the tens of thousands, and he was able to command a public audience with both of the major presidential candidates during the last campaign. As he walked away from the door of Martin Luther King’s church—after a service that lasted more than three-and-a-half hours—perhaps he thought a little more about the unpopularity of the civil rights leader at the time of his death. Or perhaps Warren was just trying to make the next flight to DC.