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Pastor Warren and Rev. Obama

Evangelism and Politics

by SAM SMITH

I was in the living room as the TV in the kitchen was playing a reprise of the campaign. I couldn’t hear the words too well, but as I listened to the cadence and tone of Barack Obama on the trail, it suddenly dawned on me why he and Rick Warren hit it off so well. They’re both evangelicals.

Warren is an evangelical of the born again Christian right and Obama is an evangelical of the born again Democratic center right. They both got where they are not by saying the right thing as making it sound like the right thing whether it really is or not, which is why preachers are more popular than investigative journalists.

I have sometimes challenged the converted to come up with a single thing Obama said during the campaign that is worth remembering. They tend to mumble and change the subject. Because in the end it wasn’t the lyrics but the tune and how they were sung. And, of course, the melanin density of who was doing the singing.

The Obama base was not a constituency, but a congregation. He did not give speeches but sermons, and, with remarkably consistency, spoke down to his followers from a sectarian pulpit. Like the religious evangelical, his act was based on using a Bible – in this case the Democratic platform – as the backdrop for a performance that stirred show business and the spiritual into an inseparable stew, all designed to make the crowd accept the man in front of them as the sina qua non of salvation.

So what better model than Rev Rick Warren, so extraordinarily successful at rendering under Caesar that which is the Lord’s?

It is interesting that in the con lib defense of Obama’s choice of Warren for the inaugural invocation, he is portrayed as a selfless worker in the field of climate control, HIV/AIDS and poverty. But when you peer a little deeper you’ll find what the Revealer blog pointed out:

"Warren isn’t joining the liberal crusade, much less the leftist fight, against poverty — he’s reviving the good-natured, laissez-faire Ronald Reagan style. That style has roots in American evangelicalism, as it happens, going back to the conservative evangelical activists of the 1930s, who argued that economic malaise was a reflection of spiritual suffering, and ought to fought on the spiritual plane."

What he is doing in these areas, while worthy on an institutional level, offers no models for government action or for serious policy.

Time Magazine described it this way:

"Five years ago, he concocted what he calls the PEACE plan, a bid to turn every single Christian church on earth into a provider of local health care, literacy and economic development, leadership training and spiritual growth. The enterprise has collected testimonials from Bono, the First Couple, Hillary Clinton, Obama, McCain and Graham, who called it "the greatest, most comprehensive and most biblical vision for world missions I’ve ever heard or read about." . . . Having staked so much on his global initiative, Warren can’t allow it to die. But the scale of his ambition does raise questions that confront the American evangelical movement as a whole as it tries to graduate from a domestic political force into a global benefactor. In fact, it is easier to save souls than to save the world."

Add to this the fact that the major results of such efforts will not be the eradication of poverty but the expansion of churches like Warren’s, churches that strongly encourage poverty by trying to restrict a woman’s right not to have children.

Warren’s skill at doing unto others what helps himself is comfortably in sync with Obama’s approach. After all, our new president got where he was in part by turning the purpose of community organizing on its head: designed to help those on the bottom; he used it to get to the top.

As Warren is giving his invocation, let’s do as his Democratic apologists would have us do: think beyond his bigoted views of women and gays. Let’s recall that this man whom Obama admires so much was coached by management guru Peter Drucker who, says Time, "refined Warren’s organizational gift and offered a secular vocabulary with which to express it." Let’s remember that in the last election he worked under cover for Bush. Let’s reflect on the fact that he wants religious restrictions on AIDs assistance. Let’s keep in mind that here is a man who has said, "I don’t believe politics is the most effective way to change the world. Although public service can be a noble profession, and I believe it is our responsibility to vote, I don’t have much faith in government solutions, given the track record."

Clearly another post-partisan in our midst, saying I don’t believe in politics but, on the hand, I strongly support the extreme right view of government.

Obama has also played to the Reaganesque anti-government crowd so they ought to hit it off on that score as well as they do on, say, their mutual opposition to gay marriage.

In the end, post-partisanship means one of two things: I don’t know or I’m not going to tell you. Neither is acceptable at a time when America needs reality as never before.

The victims of Warren’s evangelical con are limited in part by the capacity of Saddleback Church. The rest of us have a more serious problem with the man using the White House for his bully pulpit. It may help to keep in mind the thoughts of J. Christ himself, "When thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet." Or put another way by Huey Long, "The Bible’s the greatest book ever written. But I sure don’t need anybody I can buy for six bits and a chew of tobacco to explain it to me."

SAM SMITH is editor of the Progressive Review.