So what if it’s taken two days for me to calm down, gather myself and weigh in on the Rick Warren controversy. Barack Obama’s choice of pastor of Saddlebrook Church and new voice of the Evangelical Right Rick Warren to pray at his swearing-in ceremony has progressives everywhere howling in protest. I haven’t been able to comment for seeing red. The truth is that I wasn’t simply disappointed when I heard that Obama had chosen Warren to be part of his inaugural ceremony. I nearly lost my salvation. I’m kidding. But only a little.
I know we’re supposed to be won over by the fact that Warren is allegedly the face of a kinder, gentler generation of Evangelicals. Warren, touted as kingpin of a new breed of religious conservatives, speaks out against poverty and has lent help to orphans of HIV/AIDS in Africa, both of which are commendable of course. But don’t be fooled by Warren’s relaxed, Hawaiian shirt wearing, California style of compassionate conservative social justice. Rick Warren is as against women’s equality, against gay rights, anti-choice, and anti-stem cell research as the old Right he fancies himself to replace. He admits that the main difference between himself and rabid conservative James Dobson is a matter of tone. This Purpose Driven Evangelical has a purpose in mind as he made clear when he muscled his way into presidential race by hosting a pastor’s forum that forced McCain and Obama to show up to answer questions. Rick Warren is the new kingpin politicians must answer to to win the Evangelical vote.
Here’s my challenge to those of us who don’t fit, or refuse to fit, under the tent Rick Warren and his brand of new Evangelicals are pitching.
Progressive Christians can not afford to let a new face of conservative religious operatives come on the scene and dominate and define the national discourse on what it means to be Christian.
We have sat by for the past 20 years and let the Religious Right hurl spittle and scripture at the rest of us until we recoiled in dignified, but silent disgust, and in our silence, left it to the Religious Right to frame for America and the media what is Christian orthodoxy and what is not.
Those of us who do not subscribe to Warren’s brand of Christianity must make it clear that conservatives, whether they be old line conservatives or new conservatives in sheep’s clothings, are not the only ones who pray and can talk about values. New Evangelicals don’t get to pose questions about integrity, loyalty, character and their understandings of the teachings of Jesus Christ to determine for the rest of us whether they got it right.
Above all, the conservatives are not the only ones who get to say what the Bible has to say about the social issues of our day. Gay rights. Abortion. Women in the Pulpit. Above all, we have to make it clear that contrary to what conservatives think intolerance is not a Christian virtue. Nor is it proof that one is a true Christian.
Progressive Christians have to got to step up to the mike and make clear that there’s more than one way to be a Christian, more than one way to read the Bible, and that for every passage in the Bible conservatives come up with to exclude, silence, and restrict women, gays, and others, there are others in the Bible reminding us that God has a history of siding with the banished and rejected.
Long ago conservative Christians figured out how to silence progressive Christians, and that was by making us think that any belief other taking the scripture as a whole as God’s infallible, inerrant word was not truly Christian. They say one must accept or reject the Bible as a whole as words that dripped once and for always from the lips of God, or you can’t quote the Bible. Not only are the words holy (and thus taken as a whole and without dispute), but that means that there’s only one way to read or interpret the Bible –which is literally. You either believe what it says, how it says it, – and interpret it the way conservatives say it’s supposed to be interpreted – or you step away from it and leave it to the “true” believers.
That’s crap. And I for one don’t plan to sit around and watch a new breed of smiling Right wing Christians in Hawaiian shirts cozy up to presidents and other politicians and tell the rest of us who’s a Christian and who’s not.
One can be biblically grounded and yet find that the Bible’s authority lies not in some supernatural claim to special revelation, but in its special claim to be a holy text that for centuries has inspired generations to struggle for freedom, equality, justice, human dignity, reconciliation, hope, and to walk humbly before one’s God.
Sure, Obama’s choice of Warren for the inaugural prayer proves nothing more probably than that Obama is a consummate politician. He’s decided to use the inaugural platform as a space in which to extend an olive branch to a large block of skeptical religious voters. (And by the way, let’s throw in civil rights statesman Rev. Joe Lowry, Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, and Yale poet Elizabeth Alexander for counterbalance.)
But here’s also why Obama’s selection of the controversial Rick Warren had me chewing on my collar for the last two days. Why does Warren who’s proving to be a divisive figure get a pass and Jeremiah Wright does not?
Rick Warren’s smiling socially conservative, anti-gay, anti-women’s rights biblical preaching gets the nod of the country and the new president. While the blistering prophetic denunciations of American imperalism by Obama’s longtime pastor and spiritual mentor continues to condemn him as a pariah on the American stage. (Gnawing on my collar right now.) It galls me that the man whose fiery preaching nurtured Obama into becoming the community organizer he is at heart is banished from the inaugural platform, if not from the American public.
And I’m ticked that “we studied The Purpose Driven Church in our bible study” black people can’t see Warren for the Jerry Falwell type ambitious, self-anointed, religious gatekeeper that he aspires to be.
And so Obama begins his presidency “building bridges” to the New Right and leaving the rest of us to be content with symbols tied to the Old Left (in all due respect to Joe Lowery and Aretha Franklin).
It seems women and Christians and bloggers and progressive types like myself continue to have our work cut out for us. We’ve gotta roll up our sleeves and get to work fashioning a new, more inclusive face of Christianity.