Obama's Choice of Warren to Lead Prayer Not Surprising, says History/Church-State Studies Professor

Dec. 19, 2008

Decision to include evangelical pastor in inauguration is "natural exercise in tolerance"

President-elect Barack Obama's choice of the Rev. Rick Warren to pray at his inauguration has angered many of the new president's supporters because of Warren's opposition to gay marriage - but the choice should not surprise anyone, says a Baylor University professor, because it is in line with Obama's "team of rivals" approach of inclusiveness and tolerance of differences.

Barry Hankins, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Baylor where he also is affiliated with the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies. His 18-year career has focused on teaching, researching and writing about the intersection of religion, politics and American culture, giving him a unique vantage point from which to observe the new president. His most recent book, "American Evangelicalism: A Contemporary History of a Mainstream Religious Movement," provides a sweeping overview of the history of the evangelical movement in the U.S.

"Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give inaugural prayer makes sense in a several ways," says Hankins. "First, it is an opportunity for a liberal president-elect to reach out to evangelical Christians, most of whom are politically conservative. It's a low-risk choice in that Obama already has the support of the left.

"Second, the choice fits with Obama's non-ideological approach to governing, an aspect of his political personality that has been seen in some of his cabinet appointments. Here the issue is theology instead of political ideology, but the similarities are striking. Obama is no more likely to hold to a theological litmus test than he is an ideological one.

"Third, whatever his particular personal theology, Obama openly professes faith in Christ and is comfortable with others who do likewise, whether they are liberal or conservative."

The choice also points up the polarization of those at the extreme right and extreme left of the political spectrum - positions that most Americans don't share.

"It is telling that Obama's choice of Rick Warren to pray at the inauguration has angered ideological liberals who favor gay marriage," Hankins says. "If this were the Christian Right objecting to a liberal, gay-friendly pastor being chosen, the left might well call it intolerance. It seems to be getting clearer and clearer that the difference between the Christian Right and many on the left has nothing to do with one side being more tolerant than the other. Rather, each side is committed to certain moral propositions with absolute certainty, and neither side is much willing to compromise.

"Fortunately, most Americans, including many evangelicals not associated with the Christian Right, reject both the Christian Right and its most fervent critics on the left. What makes Warren's choice so natural is that it is an exercise in tolerance on the part of both parties.

"Obama and Warren share a profession of Christ, but they differ on some extremely important political and moral issues--abortion being the most obvious. Yet, in their disagreement, they are both exhibiting a healthy tolerance--Obama by asking Warren to pray at the inauguration, and Warren by accepting."

Hankins earned a B.A. in religion and an M.A. in church-state studies from Baylor and a Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University. He is a prolific scholar who has published numerous books and articles in academic journals. As a professor of both history and church-state studies, he possesses considerable expertise in religion and American culture, Protestant fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and the relationship of church and state in American history.

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