Barack Obama was not running for president or at least not openly, when he chose World Aids Day in 2006 to join in a public embrace with a softly spoken, goatee-bearded evangelical preacher, a man now poised to play one of the briefest, yet most controversial roles at next month’s inauguration ceremony in Washington.
Even then, the more astute among America’s political commentariat were quick to pick up on the potential political significance of this ostensibly odd couple. Here was Obama (black, liberal, a rising star in the Democratic party) being welcomed into the southern California mega-church of Rick Warren (Orange County white, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage and an already risen star among the evangelical Christian movement that was a mainstay of the Republican party’s, and especially George W Bush’s, electoral support).
The benefits for Obama were obvious. But Warren’s decision to invite the young Illinois senator, despite protests from some in his flock who recoiled at Obama’s views on abortion and gay rights, was no less calculated.
By summer 2007, when Warren’s “global ambition” vaulted him on to the cover of Time for hosting the first joint campaign appearance by Obama and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, the pastor of the sprawling Saddleback church complex had spent decades climbing to the very summit of evangelical prominence.
On the socially conservative “dog-whistle” issues of US politics, Warren was, and remains, shoulder to shoulder with the rest of America’s religious right. Not only is he against abortion. He has likened the “40 million Americans who are not here” because of medical terminations to a “holocaust”. He says he has no trouble understanding why evangelical voters would no sooner support a pro-abortion candidate than Jews would back a “Holocaust-denier”.
Not only does Warren abhor gay marriage - as beyond the pale, in his view, as incest or polygamy - but he joined the campaign for “Proposition 8″, which overturned California’s gay marriage law on the day Obama won the presidency. And he is also a card-carrying creationist, arguing for good measure that if Darwin were right, surely natural selection would have weeded out homosexuality.
Little wonder, then, that President-elect Obama’s decision last week to invite Pastor Warren to deliver the traditional religious invocation at his inauguration has unleashed howls of criticism. Cosying up to Warren, many feel, is surely taking Obama’s “political inclusivism” many steps too far.
But Obama’s choice of inaugural cleric was not mere politics. It was more than simply his latest, most audacious, bid to try to build a presidential constituency reaching well beyond the party that nominated and helped elect him. It was personal. For just as Barack Hussein Obama is no ordinary president-elect, Richard D Warren is no ordinary American evangelical.
The two men’s public relationship - both describe it as a friendship - began, after all, at a Saddleback church event to mark the fight against Aids, a disease many of the religious right dismiss simply as a punishment from God. For Warren, however, it has become one of a matrix of worldwide social challenges, including poverty, illiteracy and global warming, that he has insisted his and other churches must fight to alleviate.
His intention, he says, has been to broaden the evangelical agenda beyond the dog-whistle issues - a strategy whose inevitable effect, as Obama understood, would be to loosen its close identification with the Republican party. Though Warren’s base remains firmly at the sprawling church complex in California, he has now also founded an international church initiative (P.E.A.C.E.) to pursue his social agenda in partnership with churches across the developing world, which has drawn praise not only from Obama but from Bush, Hillary Clinton and Bono.
Warren’s background could not be more different from Obama’s. The son of a Baptist minister and a school librarian, he was born in San Jose - his 55th birthday falls a week after inauguration day - and says he was “called” to the ministry as a 19-year-old freshman at a local Baptist college. In temperament, too, the minister and the president-elect are hardly cut from the same cloth. Obama has raised laid-backness almost to an art form. Warren, though with an Obamaesque interview style that suggests a Wall Street CEO rather than a Bible-thumping preacher, is all energy and motion. He told Time he had been diagnosed with a rare brain disorder that, through a failure to process adrenaline, means that “my brain moves very fast”. And, he added, he “probably” also suffered from attention deficit disorder.
Yet in the context of the evangelical world, Warren shares with Obama a similar, if less sudden and rapid, emergence as an agent for “change” - and an even more successful sideline as an internationally bestselling author.
It all began conventionally enough. When he left the Baptist seminary with a degree in his mid-20s, Warren set up his original Saddleback church. It held its first service on Easter Sunday in 1980 with some 200 souls in attendance. But over the next 15 years, drawing on a mix of charisma and hard-nosed management nous, he built it into a congregation of nearly 10,000. He shifted premises dozens of times along the way, before Saddleback, which now has a membership of nearly 23,000 and is the fourth-largest church in the US, opened its present complex. In 1995, Warren published his first book, The Purpose-Driven Church, in effect a how-to guide for other preachers to accomplish what he had.
The real breakthrough came a decade later, with the release of The Purpose-Driven Life. It was not, Warren has insisted, the evangelical equivalent of a self-help book. Yet that is just what it is - a blueprint designed to help people bring religion from the pew into their everyday lives. It has now sold an estimated 200m copies worldwide.
But it is as an American political figure, a label Warren rejects, saying he retains a deep skepticism about governments as agents of change, that he has gained new prominence, and new controversy.
His first major foray came during the last presidential campaign, and while he did not openly endorse President Bush, he left little doubt that his policy sentiments on issues such as abortion and gay rights placed him firmly in the incumbent’s corner. But with his increasingly high profile, he soon shifted tack. After the election, he seemed determined to place himself and Saddleback above the partisan fray, focusing more broadly on his expanding social agenda and cultivating relations not only with his natural Republican allies but with Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The process reached fruition in the run-up to the nominating conventions. Obama and McCain, though not formally anointed, had won their party races. But they had yet to appear at a joint event. Warren was set on changing that. In a flurry of emails, he persuaded the candidates to join him at Saddleback where he would interview them separately in a nationally televised “civil forum”.
Saddleback issued a press release saying Warren would focus on questions such as Aids, poverty, climate change and human rights. But on the day, climate change never came up, nor did Aids or poverty, and abortion grabbed the headlines, leading more than a few Obama supporters to accuse Warren of ambushing their candidate. Afterwards, Warren said his church’s statement before the event had been “incomplete” and not “fully accurate”, insisting that only time constraints prevented him from getting to some of his questions about the broader social and development issues.
Obama emerged apparently unruffled. Politically, after all, a candidate whom hostile bloggers were insisting was a closet Muslim had been given an opportunity to speak thoughtfully about his faith, and even cite Christian scriptures, in the unquestionably civil company of America’s foremost evangelical leader.
And on a personal level, those who know both men suggest the bond that had begun with the invitation to Warren’s Aids conference survived unscathed. Obama, challenged by reporters last week over his decision to return the favour with a role in his inauguration, harked back to that 2006 meeting.
“I was invited to Rick Warren’s church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion,” he said. “And that dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign’s been about … we’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere… where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things what we hold in common as Americans.”
It is a vision Warren has echoed. But its broader appeal may yet be sorely tested at the US Capitol on inauguration day.
The Warren Lowdown
Born: Richard D Warren, 28 January 1954, in San Jose, California.
Best of times: Offering the invocation at next month’s inauguration will be hard to beat, though his role as impresario for the first joint Obama-McCain appearance during the 2008 campaign must come a close second.
Worst of times: The apparent abortion rights ambush, at the Saddleback campaign event, of the man who is about to become America’s 44th president.
What he says: “Our nation seems to be getting more and more rude, more and more polarised … I wanted to point out that you can disagree without demonising people, without dissing them and caricaturing them and treating them like the enemy.”
What others say: “Warren has done a masterful job at marketing himself as a ‘new’ kind of evangelical with a ‘broader’ agenda than just fighting abortion rights and gay marriage … [But] Warren vocally opposes gay marriage, does not believe in evolution, has compared abortion to the Holocaust and backed the assassination of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.” Sarah Posner, writing last week in the Nation