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Rick Warren at the Obama Inauguration--Skeel

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.


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Comments ( 5 )

I dunno, David. Obama's election may briefly spark people's interest in mainline churches once again, but I think their long-term decline is well-nigh irreversible. They don't have very many children, they don't have much in the way of a compelling theological set of claims, etc. I'd guess that it's more likely that you'll see something of a split among evangelicals. American evangelicals have always been defined by their social activism (or at least attitudes toward the social and political order) and I suspect that some portion of evangelicalism will try and dissociate itself from Warren, et. al. on account of their perception that he's too "liberal."

On the other hand, perhaps we ought to be grateful to Obama for this and hope that it works to de-politicize evangelicalism a bit, at least to the extent that its politicization has impeded the attractiveness of the gospel.

This may bode well for "mainline Protestantism" but hardly for Christianity. One of my main frustrations with Billy Graham is that he refused to speak out clearly on social issues. Perhaps Billy G. was wise in his avoidance of political issues. After all, he was NOT a politician, but an evangelist. His rationale might have been: Save them first, then let the Holy Spirit convict. He was speaking primarily to non-Christians. BUT, and this is a BIG BUT, as Christians, we are commanded to exhort one another to righteous living. After one becomes a Christian we are to steep ourselves in Scripture. Our hearts should be changed and our desire, first and foremost should be to live in a way that is pleasing to God. You CANNOT live in this world as a Christian and not speak to these things eventually. And here might be THE distinction between these two men who have, in their own time, been chosen by the media to represent Evangelical Christianity in America: Billy Graham is an evangelist. His primary mission is to preach the Gospel; to show people their sinful condition and their need for a Savior and to offer Christ’s gift of forgiveness. Rick Warren is primarily a pastor, not an “evangelist”. That doesn’t mean that within the context of his job as a pastor, that he doesn’t preach the gospel, but he also has the responsibility of guiding and leading his congregation to LIVE as Christians in this world.

John Kerry seemed to think it absolved him of responsibility to not participate intimately with abortion, but felt free to support it politically. Sorry. Doesn't work. When you believe that something is wrong, it becomes your responsibility to not support that in any way. That incudes NOT supporting (in this case, pro abortion) legislation and it includes NOT supporting those who WILL support that legislation. And we all know where Mr. Obama stands on that issue.

One can get into all sorts of intellectual arguments about freedom of religion and obfuscate the fact that as Christians we are commanded to protect the weak and innocent. Our legal codes were originally based on Scripture. Many of them were taken almost word for word. If we remove Scripture as the basis for our laws, we have no anchor, no standard upon which to base our judgments. That is what is happening today and no matter where that places us in the spectrum of “democracy”, as Christians, we cannot let go of that standard.

The "mainline Protestant" churches have totally abandoned that call and many go much further to confuse even the most basic of Christian doctrines.(i.e. "The Reimagining God" fiasco sponsored by, I believe, The National Council of Churches) After this last election, I’d have to add that many so called “Evangelicals” have as well.

Scripture tells us that in the last days people will be flocking to have their "ears tickled". Yup. The mainline churches are more than ready to tell folks anything they want to hear.

When I speak of "mainline denominations" I am speaking primarily about the Seminaries and denominational leadership. As I write this, I am WELL aware that there are still some holdout congregations within those large mainline denominations. Any of you belonging to those...WHY are you still there? OK, I admit that I don't know the totality of how God works and perhaps He has called you to a ministry within that place....but I found it impossible to sit under the authority of men who did not believe or obey Scripture. They had NOTHING to teach me but misinformation. They waste the time and energy of believers with issues that should not even need to be talked about within the Christian Church.

I guess the bottom line of my comment is that while you may be correct in your prediction that the days ahead will see an increase in membership in "mainline denominations" , that is not Good News to Christendom. Jo

I think there's another, larger part issue here. Bush won 2 terms, in large part, due to his ability to capitalize on an organized evangelical vote.

That support came with expectations - high ones.

And, in the opinion of many evangelicals, Bush turned out to be a disappointment (as well the GOP in Congress). The GOP lost Congress because they failed to implement the conservative policies that campaigned on. Bush as well.

Everyone hates a hypocrite, but I think evangelicals feel particularly taken advantage of by the GOP and Bush. For the young evangelicals this means supporting Obama since he promises to help the poor. For older evangelicals, it means casting a protest vote or not voting at all.

In think Warren is walking a fine line here: evangelicals want social policy change; but politics are toxic. If Warren is see as too much "in the beltway" I suspect many evangelicals will - perhaps rightly - despise him.

Well, I'm not sure those in our Reformed faith care much for Warren either. He has made "deeds, not creeds" his motto. I was vastly disappointed with his "Purpose-Driven Life" book, which contained little Gospel and a whole lot of Law. To some extent, Rick reminds me of the liberal social gospel spokesmen in the Episcopal Church of the 60s. The guys at The White Horse Inn (Mike Horton, Kim Riddlebarger, Rod Rosenbladt) have given pretty smart critiques of the messages Rick Warren has preached. This is a further example of the split between "evangelicals" and the Reformed--see D.G. Hart and R.Scott Clark for further examples.

To follow up on Richard's comments, one certainly wonders whether the evangelical church in the U.S. is in the process of repeating the events of roughly 100 years ago, which saw the split of American protestantism into the mainline and evangelical camps. I would not go so far as to say that the split falls along the reformed fault line though. I believe there are significant numbers of non-reformed evangelicals who are deeply disturbed by lowest common denominator christianity.

All of this reminds me of an interview with Joel Osteen that appeared on 20-20 a couple of years ago. The interviewer asked Mr. Osteen a couple of touchstone questions, e.g., what is your take on homosexuality, etc. Much to my surprise, Mr. Osteen's answers were solidly evangelical (in the best sense of the term). Now, I have listened to several of Mr. Osteen's sermons over the years. What was fascinating in the 20-20 interview, to me at least, was that he demonstrated a very clear belief in the "uncomfortable" propositions of historic evangelicalism (i.e., those propositions in conflict with the prevailing, modern American worldview), but, to my knowledge at least, he consistently steers clear of these subjects in his preaching. (I don't mean to suggest, of course, that a sermon that only and directly deals with, say, homosexuality is itself the touchstone of genuine evangelical faith. I simply mean, of course, that Mr. Osteen advocates a certain form of christianity that tends to emphasize sin as disease with terrible consequences to the exclusion and neglect of descriptions of sin as willful, conscious rebellion worthy of eternal punishment, etc.)

While I agree with the commentators below (above?) that christianity's message must, of necessity, have social impact, it would seem that broad swaths of American protestantism are in the process of grasping onto this essential aspect of christianity while letting go of their fidelity to evangelical creed. The Joel Osteen's of American evangelicalism still remember what they learned in sunday school so we haven't seen the full effects of this shift as yet, but what of the generation that grows up under his teaching?