In some ways, President-elect Obama and Warren share a worldview. Both are pragmatists who preach a gospel of personal responsibility and community involvement. Obama speaks of a post-racial, post-partisan landscape. Warren is considered a post-denominational religious leader. And they both seem willing to take flak for a decision.
For example, Warren invited then-senator Obama to his church in 2006 for a Global Summit on AIDS — an issue the pastor is passionate about. The invitation was widely denounced by evangelicals because of Obama's support of abortion rights. Critics urged Warren to rescind the invitation, but Warren stuck by his guns.
At Thursday's news conference, Obama recalled that visit. "I was invited to Rick Warren's church to speak despite his awareness that I held views that are entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights and issues like abortion," Obama said. "Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak. And that dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign is all about: that we're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans."
This time around, Obama is the one who is catching grief. Certain critics on the left do not think Warren is the right spiritual leader to set the tone for Obama's presidency. And to the gay and lesbian community, the choice of Warren is seen as a symbolic slap in the face.
In an open letter to Obama, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, wrote, "By inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table."
Warren spoke out in favor of Proposition 8, a California constitutional amendment that bans same-sex marriage. "Rev. Warren is not a moderate pastor who is trying to bring all sides together," Solmonese said.
In a déjà vu moment, Solmonese urged Obama to reconsider his invitation.
To Randall Balmer, author of God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush, Warren tries his best to steer clear of the culture wars.
The true significance of Obama's choice, says Balmer, is that it represents a break with the mainstream denominational past. The selection of Warren, he says, "signals a changing of the guard."
The exemplar of the old school White House counselor was Billy Graham, a Southern Baptist who provided spiritual guidance to most of the presidents between Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush. When Graham became too old to continue, his son, Franklin Graham, took up the mantel. Franklin Graham gave the invocation at the 2001 inauguration of George W. Bush.
Balmer, who is also a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, notes that Obama could also have chosen the younger Graham. Or, he jokes, the president-elect could have picked his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "That would really have set off alarm bells."
Obama is saying so long "to the old guard of the religious right," Balmer says. And Warren's selection "is a nod toward the future."