Barack Obama once credited a prophetic black preacher as his spiritual mentor. Now he has selected a self-promoting white preacher to give the invocation at his inauguration. What does Obama’s shift from Jeremiah Wright to Rick Warren say about the president-elect?
An answer to this question merits a disclosure: EthicsDaily.com editorials have critiqued both Wright, former pastor of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ, and Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in the Los Angeles area. Our editorial position has long argued that God is neither a Democrat, nor a Republican, that God transcends partisan politics. Moreover, EthicsDaily.com has argued that preachers should maintain a distance from political power in order to deliver a prophetic word.
Jeremiah Wright was critiqued for his claim that God favored one presidential candidate—then parishioner Obama—because of his skin pigmentation. Wright compromised his witness when he was a vocal advocate of the Illinois senator in a heated primary race against the New York senator.
Rick Warren was critiqued because he read from a small Bible, truncating the biblical witness’ moral agenda to five non-negotiable issues that matched the Republican Party’s agenda. Warren lost his witness with his endorsement of President George Bush six days before the 2004 election.
Nonetheless, what does it mean that Obama has shifted from the tradition of his mentor, who baptized him into the Christian faith and gave him a book title, to a much different tradition modeled by a preacher who always promotes himself?
One possible answer comes from the Obama campaign, which claims that Warren’s selection represents the president-elect’s inclusive leadership style. He reached out to a white, evangelical conservative, one who has longed affiliated with the Christian Right and is a member of the fundamentalist-controlled Southern Baptist Convention.
A second possible answer comes from gay-rights advocates and liberals, who are furious over the decision, identifying it as a kick-in-the-teeth move. They see Obama’s choice as purely political, reaching out to those who voted against him and forgetting those who voted for him.
These two answers are political answers, really different sides of the same coin. It’s all about politics; call it politics at prayer.
A third answer is sociological. Obama thinks that his role has shifted from prophetic messenger to pastoral counselor, from social critic to culture affirmer. He may remember how the public rejected Jimmy Carter’s moral sermonizing, but embraced Ronald Reagan’s affirming morning-in-America homily.
As a president in bad times, Obama may believe he needs to calm fears and boost self-esteem more than thunder moral judgment against corporate injustice, economic greed, environmental destruction and military adventurism.
Since black Christianity has a well-recognized and expected tradition of prophetic preaching, Obama may want to shed affiliation with the social justice tradition, fearing that it creates too much discomfort, especially among white people. Since white Christianity has the pulpit tradition of pastoral care and positive thinking, he may think that most Americans will feel more comfortable with a president who embraces such a definition of Christian faith.
A fourth possible answer is theological: Obama is pivoting away from the social gospel towards a privatized Christianity, hence his enlistment of a preacher who embodies privatized faith.
At the very least, Obama has symbolically abandoned his own denomination, the United Church of Christ, which is at the cutting edge of the social gospel. He has honored the Southern Baptist Convention, which at its core advances a privatized and individualized gospel. These two bodies occupy opposite wings of Christian faith.
Given Obama’s campaign of carefully crafted symbolism, one should not underestimate the meaning of his decision to enlist a Southern Baptist to say the opening prayer at the inauguration.
If he is signaling a shift in his theological vision, then his moral vision is devolving.
Let’s not forget it was the leadership of a Christian tradition that privatizes faith which championed the war against Iraq, backed economic favors for the wealth, opposed addressing climate change and did nothing to push the Bush White House to care for the marginalized in our world.
On the other hand, those who heard the biblical imperative to do justice are the ones who warned against war, criticized tax breaks for the wealthy, advocated for initiatives to address climate change and spoke up for the poor and powerless.
One of the last things our country needs is a White House that has the Christian Right on speed dial, legitimizes its leadership and validates its theology.
We know where that kind of theology leads. What we don’t know is where Obama’s theology is now leading him.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.