Barack Obama and Rick Warren - Public History of the Pastor and the Politician

Photo: David McNew/Getty Images.

At first glance, admiring collaboration between a liberal politican and a religious right pastor may seen farfetched.

But when the politican is best-selling author and President-elect Barack Obama and the pastor is best-selling author and megachurch leader Rick Warren, the two most successful U.S. marketers of ideas and sellers of nonfiction books in the 21st century, their collaboration makes pragmatic sense.

Problem is, Obama and Warren claim to disagree on certain highly divisive social issues, including abortion and gay and lesbian rights, and have sharply differing theological beliefs.

Although their differences are fundamental to to the lives and moral beliefs of their followers and supporters, Obama and Warren both dismiss these differences as merely a couple points of contention among a myriad of equally vital issues.

That the two great American gurus of this decade, Barack Obama and Rick Warren, are irresistibly drawn to work together is apparently a given. The reasons for their mutual attraction, though,... presumably some combination of desire to be publicly associated with the other, competitiveness, approval, and genuine admiration... may never be known.

Meanwhile, most of the American public is puzzled and confused by the emergence of a public partnership between the liberal politician and the religious right pastor.

Warren: George Bush Supporter in 2004

The Obama-Warren partnership seems to have begun after the 2004 reelection of President George W. Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney.

As is the case for most pastors, Rick Warren and wife Kay have not made political campaign contributions, per public records.

But on January 15, 2005, the Los Angeles Times reported that one Richard Warren of Lake Forest, California, where Pastor Warren resides, gave $100,000 to President Bush's Inaugural Fund.

(See HERE for a complete list of donors who gave $100,000 or more to George Bush's 2005 inaugural party fund.)

There is little-to-no public evidence throughout 2005 of a budding working relationship between Rick Warren and Barack Obama, nor does evidence exist of Warren then becoming disenchanted with Bush administration policies.

Warren Split in 2006 with Some Bush Policies?

However, I wrote on December 14, 2005 here at About.com Liberal Politics, "Last week, leaders of five Christian denominations in the US jointly sent a letter to President Bush, reiterating their horrified view of his 2006 post-election budget priorities."

In my column, I described how leaders of five Protestant denominatons had jointly taken the Bush administration to task for a budget that "reduces aid to those in poverty" while it "showers presents on the rich... If passed in its current form, it would take Jesus' teaching on economic justice and stand it on its head...."

I added: "Notably absent from the national religious conversation of concern for the poor, hungry, homeless and the 45 million Americans with no health insurance were Christian lobbyist and Karl Rove-buddy Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson......and all of their followers."

Four days later, I received an articulate, generous email from Rick Warren in which he took exception to my column, and explained that his Saddleback Church had provided financial support for "over 400 African American pastors who lost their churches due to Katrina" as well as other good works backed by substantial funds.

Surprised and appropriately corrected, I removed Warren's name from inclusion with Dobson, Falwell and Robertson in my December 14, 2005 column.

In 2006, Warren and Obama Both Reject Bush Torture Policies

The first public convergence of viewpoints between Obama and Warren occurred in mid-2006 over the issue of torture committed by the United States.

In June 2006, bucking the trend among religious right clergy, Pastor Rick Warren joined 26 other prominent U.S. religious leaders, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Catholic Cardinal Theodore E.

McCarrick of Washington, in signing a joint statement urging "Let America abolish torture now -- without exceptions."

The statement, issued by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, was published in newspapers across the nation. The organization was expressly formed to take a united stand against human rights abuse at the Bush administration's U.S. detention centers in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

For the full text of the statement, see U.S. Religious Leaders Condemn Torture by Bush Administration.

Meanwhile, on September 28, 2006, Obama delivered impassioned remarks decrying Senate passage of S. 3930, Military Commissions Act of 2006, which approved U.S. torture of detainees and stripped Constitutional rights away from detainees.

Obama orated: "And we all know about the recent case of the Canadian man who was suspected of terrorist connections, detained in New York, sent to Syria, and tortured, only to find out later that it was all a case of mistaken identity and poor information.

"In the future, people like this may never have a chance to prove their innocence. They may remain locked away forever. And the sad part about all of this is that this betrayal of American values is unnecessary."

Read the entirety at Barack Obama Reacts to Bill Approving Torture.

Obama Speaks at Warren's Church in December 2006

Five weeks after Obama eloquently protested Bush legislation allowing the U.S. to torture, Rick Warren created a major brouhaha in conservative Christian circles by hosting Barack Obama at Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California, the fourth largest church in the U.S.

On December 1, 2006, World AIDS Day, Barack Obama delivered his landmark speech on AIDS and Faith, Race Against Time - World AIDS Day Speech.

Obama prefaced his speech by professing admiration for the Warrens: "I want to start by saying how blessed I feel to be a part of today and how grateful I am for your church and your pastor, my friend Rick Warren.

"Ever since Rick and Kay visited Africa to see the pain and suffering wrought by AIDS, the Warrens and this church have proved each day that faith is not just something you have, it's something you do."

Five months earlier, on June 28, 2008, Obama made a controversial speech at a conference sponsored by Sojourners, a Christian progressive organization. The frank speech, in which Obama declared "We're no longer just a Christian nation," landed him in hot water with both liberals and conservatives.

In particular, some liberals were outraged by Obama's insistence that "... if we don't reach out to evangelical Christians and other religious Americans and tell them what we stand for, then the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons and Alan Keyeses will continue to hold sway."

So on December 1, 2006, Warren, who had quietly been separating himself from selected Republican policies, and Obama, who had quietly been advocating outreach to conservative Christian communities, appeared together publicly at Warren's 23,000-attendee church.

And while the event was neither held during Sunday morning church services nor was it nationally televised, religious right howls over this 2006 AIDS event were vehement.

As if to demonstrate neutrality toward Democratic presidential candidates, Warren hosted Sen. Hillary Clinton as the headline speaker for his 2007 World AIDS conference one month before the start of the 2008 Democratic primary election season.

Warren Hosts First Obama-McCain Debate

On August 16, 2008 at Saddleback Church, Pastor Rick Warren hosted and moderated the Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency, which was the first debate between 2008 presidential candidates Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama.

Warren posed fairly the same unrehearsed questions to both candidates, although an odd mix-up occurred whereby McCain seemed to have heard a few questions and Obama's responses before McCain's time slot.

Again, Obama warmly prefaced his words with homage to Warren:

"Well, first of all, let me thank you for having me here, Rick.

I love the ministries that are taking place here at Saddleback. This is the second time I've been here and the first time we had a wonderful time... "

Obama Invites Warren to Lead Nation in 2009 Inaugural Prayer

In mid-December 2008, Democratic President-elect Barack Obama invited Rick Warren, conservative evangelical pastor and an ordained Southern Baptist Convention minister, to lead the nation in the January 20, 2009 Inaugural Day Invocation.

Obama bestowed this sacred and historic honor on Warren because, "... a couple of years ago, 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. Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak."

And because, "During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that's how it should be, because that's what America's about."

The Barack Obama-Rick Warren Partnership, 2009 and Beyond

Both Barack Obama and Rick Warren have made it abundantly clear that their areas of disagreement, including respect and rights for gay Americans and for those on both heartfelt sides of the abortion debate, are less important to either of them than the benefits of working together.

But the rest of us are left with far more questions than answers about the odd ideological pairing of Obama and Warren, and what it means for unreconcilable perspectives on certain burning civil and moral questions.