Why did Barack Obama chose the Rev. Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation? Anyone really curious about this question would do well to read Stephen Mansfield’s The Faith of Barack Obama, a highly original portrait of the President-Elect published last year in the midst of the presidential campaign.
Mansfield is an evangelical Christian, and he makes a point of saying that he disagrees with Obama on many political issues. But I believe the author does a fair job of probing and representing Obama’s faith. Here’s a sample:
For Obama, faith is not simply political garb, something a focus group told him he ought to try. Instead, religion to him is transforming, lifelong, and real. It is who he is at the core, what he has raised his daughters to live, and the well he will draw from as he leads. While Americans are used to religious insincerity from their political leaders, Obama seems to be sincere in what he proclaims. He embraced religion long before he embraced politics. Indeed, it was his faith that gave him the will to serve in public office, and the worldview of that faith that shaped his understanding of what he would do once he came to power.
Mansfield seems torn sometimes between his admiration of Obama’s faith and the realization that it does not conform with evangelical norms. The author at one point refers to Obama’s “unorthodox spirituality,” and he notes with apparent discomfort the importance that doubt plays in Obama’s view of faith, and Obama’s respect for non-Christian religions.
The Rev. Rick Warren makes an appearance in the book when Mansfield describes a joint appearance by Obama and Presidential candidate Sam Brownback at a 2006 World AIDS Day summit sponsored by Warren’s Saddleback mega-church. Brownback said he felt more comfortable than he had the previous time he and Obama had shared a stage. The story continues,
….”We were both addressing the NACCP,” he [Brownback] told the crowd of several thousand. “They were very polite to me. I think they kind of wondered, ‘Who’s this guy from Kansas?’ And then Barack Obama follows, and they’re going, ‘Okay, now we’ve got Elvis.'”
Assuming that Warren’s evangelical church would be home turf for a conservative Roman Catholic like himself, Brownback then turned to Obama and said, “Welcome to my house!” The audience exploded with laughter and applause. A few moments later, though, Obama took the stage and said, “There is one thing I have to say, Sam. This is my house, too. This is God’s house.”
Once again, Obama showed his skill at intercepting the political long pass. Brownback intended an appeal to his base. Obama wasn’t having it. Refusing to yield an inch of the religious high ground, he made it clear to all that not only would he not be moved from his rightful place in the Christian fold, but he would also not allow newcomers to the crisis of AIDS, newcomers like Warren’s evangelicals, to forget that Obama’s political tribe began addressing that issue long ago. Be a Christian with me, Sam, he was saying, but don’t act like my older brother. This is my house, too.
I’m not sure how to connect this story with Obama’s pick of Rick Warren for the inauguration, which has caused genuine anguish among gay supporters, because of Warren’s clumsy and hurtful statements about gays. Perhaps the point of Obama’s faith is how it enables him to go where focus-group Christian politicians would fear to tread. He’s sure enough of his spiritual foundation that he feels at home within a congregation that probably included a mere handful who would consider voting for him. He likewise will no doubt stand his ground with Rick Warren against criticism from many longtime Obama supporters, including New York Times columnist Frank Rich.
Ever since Obama declared in his national political debut in 2004 that “we worship an awesome God in the Blue States,” he has confounded those who didn’t take his words or his faith seriously. Mansfield’s enlightening book is a good way to learn more about where the next President is coming from, and how he’ll stay centered in the tumultuous days and years ahead.