Was Obama's Selection an Inspired Choice or a Blunder?

By Sally Quinn
Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration has been characterized as -- at best -- a giant blunder. But it might turn out to be just another canny move from this supremely confident politician.

Warren, an antiabortion evangelical Christian, outraged supporters of gay rights by comparing gay marriage to incest and pedophilia, and with his active support of California's Proposition 8, the gay-marriage ban that voters passed in November. Many Obama supporters and even staff members were baffled or outraged when the selection was announced last month. Warren was labeled a hatemonger and a bigot; Eugene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop and an early Obama supporter in New Hampshire, called the choice "a slap in the face" and told me this week that "the Obama team perhaps underestimated how painful this decision would be to gay and lesbian, bisexual and transgender people so soon after the passage of Proposition 8."

Both Warren and the Obama camp were stunned by the depth of the reaction, and Obama's people admit now that it was a "stumble."

The choice has an obvious political component: Warren's presence today will increase Obama's capital with some conservative people of faith and blunt their criticism as he begins implementing his policies.

But Obama knows something that his angry gay supporters don't: Rick Warren is an open-minded man who has changed his positions on a number of issues in the past few years.

When Warren's remarkably successful "The Purpose Driven Life" was published, he was dismissed by many in the media as a right-wing nut. Rather than turn against his critics, Warren tried to learn who they were, what they believed and why they believed it. He tried to understand them.

In an interview with me last year, Warren said that he had undergone an "epiphany" about five years earlier, when his wife, Kay, learned that she had cancer. Kay was learning about the AIDS crisis about that time, and facing mortality made her want to do something meaningful. They went to Africa and were astounded at the magnitude of the devastation the disease was causing, particularly to families. Warren said he asked himself, "Okay, Lord, I missed this AIDS issue -- I didn't realize how big it was. What else am I missing?"

The answer: a lot.

Today, Warren's AIDS foundation has raised millions, and he and his wife give away 90 percent of everything he takes in. He walks the walk.

He's also attempting to broaden his contacts with other religions. Last year he addressed a large group of Jews and an equally large group of Muslims. "I had a very favorable impression of Pastor Warren, who came across as authentic, open to dialogue and likable," said Sufi star Salman Ahmad, whose latest song, "Ring the Bells," is performed with gay rock singer Melissa Etheridge.

Etheridge nearly canceled her appearance at an event with Ahmad last month when she learned Warren was to speak there. Instead, though, she called Warren. He told her he was a big fan and owned most of her albums, she later said. He told her that "every loving relationship should have equal protection" and that he regretted his choice of words in his video message to his congregation about Proposition 8. He invited Etheridge to his church, and she invited him to her home. "This didn't sound like a gay hater, much less a preacher," Etheridge wrote later.

It was Obama's religious outreach director, Joshua Dubois, who first mentioned Warren as a choice for the inaugural invocation. Warren and Obama spoke and prayed together about it. When Warren had invited Obama to speak at a California conference two years ago for World AIDS Day, he was harshly criticized by evangelical Christians because of Obama's position on abortion rights. During last year's campaign, when Warren conducted his compassion forum at Saddleback, he was criticized by the right for giving Obama that platform. Although both have taken heat from their constituencies for this decision, Obama felt closer to him than to any other minister. After the firestorm erupted, Obama reportedly called Warren and told him that he loved him and that Warren had his full support. David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama, also gave the choice his blessing.

And Obama's move is already yielding results: Warren has taken down the anti-gay material from his Web site and has essentially come out in favor of civil unions. Obama has pledged to rescind the unpopular "don't ask, don't tell" rule imposed on gays in the military. Bishop Robinson, who told me that Warren's view of "people like me and my relationships is pretty horrific," nonetheless was invited to give the invocation at Sunday's concert at the Lincoln Memorial and has asked to meet with Warren. He acknowledged that Obama had included "all voices" in the inauguration and added, "No one had a bigger tent than Jesus."

In the end, it seems that Obama's choice was brilliant -- good for gays, good for the country and good for him. Who knows? Perhaps in a few years, Pastor Rick Warren will have another epiphany . . . and may eventually be officiating at same-sex wedding ceremonies.

Sally Quinn moderates On Faith, an online forum on religion produced by The Post and Newsweek. Rick Warren is a panelist for On Faith.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company