The New York Times noted in a small article this morning that President-elect Obama has invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, and called this an "olive branch" to evangelicals. Two thoughts on the choice.
First, as the article suggests, the pick confirms that Rick Warren is the new Billy Graham- the obvious choice for this kind of honor. The contrast between the Warren and Graham as leading public evangelicals is striking. With a couple of exceptions, Graham resolutely avoided social issues, whereas Warren has made them a centerpiece of his ministry. This is dramatic testimony, it seems to me, of the extent to which some of the emphases of evangelicalism are changing. In some respects, Warren has less in common with Graham than with the early twentieth century evangelicals (such as John R. Mott of the YMCA and Student Volunteer Movement) who treated social issues and evangelism as inextricably intertwined.
Warren's prominence does not necessarily mean, however- and this is the second point- that evangelicals will be an important part of the Obama era. Evangelical political influence may well have peaked. Evangelicals played surprisingly little role in the election- and not because Obama made significant inroads; although he won a higher percentage of young evangelical votes than John Kerry in 2004, the overall percentages were nearly the same, with McCain winning well over 70%.
I suspect the most noteworthy development in Protestant Christianity in an Obama era may be at least a temporary reversal of the decades of decline in mainline Protestantism in America. Although Obama hobnobs with a few prominent evangelicals, and his first memoir prominently featured a conversion story, his instincts seem much more in line with mainline Protestantism than with evangelicalism. The frequent comparisons to Lincoln and Roosevelt are fully consistent with this- and Obama also seems to me to have some similarities to the young Woodrow Wilson. In historical terms, Obama is a Progressive, not a Populist, and this may bode well for the mainline Protestant denominations that are the Progressives' principal religious heirs.