Ever since Barack Obama was elected president, the media has been pining to write a story about liberal dissatisfaction with his transition efforts. By and large, the meme has been blown out of proportion, as the press overestimated how divisive Obama's cabinet choices were for progressives.
The press may now have its conflict moment. And it comes in the form of the spiritual leader chosen to launch Obama's inauguration.
On Wednesday, the transition team and Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies announced that Rick Warren, pastor of the powerful Saddleback Church, would give the invocation on January 20th. The selection may not have been incredibly surprising. Obama and Warren are reportedly close -- Obama praised the Megachurch leader in his second book "The Audacity of Hope." Warren, meanwhile, hosted a values forum between Obama and McCain during the general election. Nevertheless, the announcement is being greeted with deep skepticism in progressive religious and political circles.
"My blood pressure is really high right now," said Rev. Chuck Currie, minister at Parkrose Community United Church of Christ in Portland, Oregon. "Rick Warren does some really good stuff and there are some areas that I have admired his ability to build bridges between evangelicals and mainline religious and political figures... but he is also very established in the religious right and his position on social issues like gay rights, stem cell research and women's rights are all out of the mainstream and are very much opposed to the progressive agenda that Obama ran on. I think that he is very much the wrong person to put on the stage with the president that day."
Warren does have a rather peculiar relationship with the incoming president. The two share a general ethos that political differences should not serve as impediments to progress. On topics like AIDS and poverty relief, they see eye-to-eye. But Warren's domestic and social agendas are at odds with Obama's. And for the gay and lesbian community in particular, the choice is a bitter pill to swallow.
"Pastor Warren, while enjoying a reputation as a moderate based on his affable personality and his church's engagement on issues like AIDS in Africa, has said that the real difference between James Dobson and himself is one of tone rather than substance," read a statement from People For the American Way President Kathryn Kolbert. "He has repeated the Religious Right's big lie that supporters of equality for gay Americans are out to silence pastors. He has called Christians who advance a social gospel Marxists. He is adamantly opposed to women having a legal right to choose an abortion."
"Picking Rick Warren to give THE invocation," wrote John Aravosis on AmericaBlog, "is abominable."
"Let me get right to the point," Joe Solomnese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a harsh letter to the president-elect, "Your invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at your inauguration is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans."
Added Rev. Candace Chellew-Hodge, author of the book: "Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians": "It is almost like he wants to poke the progressives with a sharp stick."
Indeed, Chellew-Hodge and others see the move as motivated by politics, not religion or policy. They offer several explanations in this vein. Obama has his eye on the evangelical vote (young white evangelicals voted for Obama at twice the rate for John Kerry); he is charting a path that isn't at its heart socially or religiously progressive (Chellew-Hodge noted that Warren recently said same-sex couples deserve equal rights, though not the right to marriage, a position at least superficially similar to Obama's). Mainly, however, the argument is that the Warren choice falls under the president-elect's stated objective of building a big tent government.
"I can't read the transition team's mind," said Dan Nejfelt, a spokesman for the group, Faith In Public Life, "but my guess here is that they're crafting an inauguration meant to appeal to voters who voted against Obama as well as his supporters."
Indeed, lost in the hubbub about Warren, is the fact that the man tasked with overseeing the benediction is a icon within progressive politics. Rev. Joe Lowery, a hero of the civil rights movement and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King famously called out President George W. Bush during Coretta Scott King's funeral. He also is a supporter of same-sex marriage. But he is not garnering the same attention as Warren for his inauguration role.
It's vintage Obama, several observers say -- bringing the spectrum of the religious/political experience together for one event. And yet, it is also a big source of frustration for progressive leaders, many of whom aren't interested in legitimizing viewpoints antithetical to their message.
"I think there is probably an actual friendship between the two, and I admire that because Barack Obama has an ability to be friends with people he disagrees with, and that is a good quality for a president," said Rev. Currie. "But I think that he is very much the wrong person to put on the stage with the president that day. It sends a very wrong message about who America is and what our aspirations are."
Requests for a comment from the Obama transition team went un-returned.