By Jacqueline L. Salmon and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 19, 2008
President-elect Barack Obama yesterday defended his selection of megachurch pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, saying that he disagrees with the minister's opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage but that there should be room for "dialogue" on such difficult social issues.
Liberal groups and gay rights activists were outraged at the choice of Warren, one of the country's most prominent evangelicals, who has spoken out in favor of a ban on same-sex marriage in California.
Although Warren's views are not far from those of other clergy members who could have been asked to deliver the invocation, Obama found himself emphasizing his own record as "a fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans."
"It is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues," Obama said.
He emphasized that Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will give the benediction and has "deeply contrasting views to Warren on a whole host of issues."
The focus on Warren is another sign of the increasing political controversy surrounding ministers who use Internet technology to promulgate their views in sermons that once would have reverberated only as far as a church's stained-glass windows.
Thanks to best-selling books, YouTubed sermons and blogs, some pastors have become such media personalities that their pronouncements often enter the popular culture and feed the political fray.
Warren's book "The Purpose Driven Life" has sold 40 million copies, six times as many as Obama's three books combined. He has called attention to hunger and illiteracy and is credited with expanding the evangelical agenda beyond such issues as abortion and gay rights, even though he sticks to his Southern Baptist roots in opposing them.
"There is no reason to change the universal, historical definition of marriage to appease 2% of our population," he said in a recent mass e-mail.
His vocal support of the gay marriage ban approved last month by California voters is what has drawn the most intense criticism from gay rights proponents and other liberal supporters of Obama.
Kathryn Kolbert, president of People For the American Way, called Warren someone who has "actively promoted legalized discrimination and denigrated the lives and relationships of millions of Americans."
A few years ago, "most Americans did not have a clue" who did the invocation for the president, said David Domke, author of "The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America."
"Who would have known, and who would have cared?" Domke asked. But "in the new media environment, everything becomes a firestorm. . . . It's all documented and circulates around the Internet more quickly."
There have always been ministers whose political activism becomes the focus of criticism -- Martin Luther King Jr.'s opposition to the Vietnam War, for instance -- but controversy grows more rapidly and voraciously now, said Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank. "Opposition [to a clergy member] can be rallied much more quickly" than in the past.
The fiery sermons of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama's former pastor in Chicago, reached beyond his congregation via YouTube. The Rev. John Hagee was repudiated by Sen. John McCain (R) during the presidential campaign after sermons surfaced in which Hagee portrayed Adolf Hitler as God's tool for delivering Jews to the Promised Land. And critics of GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin pounced on the words of a Kenyan minister who invoked witchcraft while praying with her at her church in Alaska.
Obama has appeared twice at Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. The first time was a conference in 2006 to discuss HIV/AIDS. His second trip, in August, was viewed as a chance to reach evangelical voters. While there, Obama did say he defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
When antiabortion groups pushed for Obama to be disinvited to the 2006 meeting, Warren said the church's goal was "to put people together who normally won't even speak to each other."
Obama sounded a similar note yesterday, saying Warren invited him to speak at Saddleback "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. That dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign's been all about."
Slevin reported from Chicago.