Deconstructing Rick Warren's Inaugural Invocation

After a month of controversy, Rick Warren's performance Tuesday at the inauguration of President Barack Obama was like a good short story: in the end, it was both inevitable and surprising.

The first surprise was Warren's evident awkwardness as he stepped up to the podium, as though his fast public rise over the past four years—meetings with Bono and Bill Gates, trips to Davos and Aspen—have transferred upon him none of the polish one expects from world leaders. Warren is quite genuinely a man who looks and feels more at home at his mega-church in sunny Southern California, wearing his Hawaiian shirts and preaching to a crowd drinking Starbucks. The inauguration of the 44th president was exactly the kind of frigid Eastern pageant Warren spent the early years of his career working against. (Churches, he said, should not be constrained by traditional songs and liturgy.) As a result, the pastor of Saddleback Church looked a little like a fish out of water as he began his invocation: tie askew, hair unkempt. This dissonance, of course, was the point. Warren is unlike Obama in almost every way. He is warm where the President is cool, garrulous where the President is a grammatical perfectionist, religiously conservative where Obama is progressive. As the proceedings unfolded on television, Obama's reasons for choosing Warren could not have been more clear. Warren can strike an empathic, populist chord better than anyone else in America.

Warren has learned some important lessons about rhetorical caution, however, and inevitably, his prayer aimed to be inclusive. He started with God, "our father," which was innocuous enough, and went on to proclaim that "everything we see and everything we can't see exists because of you alone." Language this neutral could hardly be offensive to any but the strictest unbelievers. Then, in a deft and fluid nod to the three great monotheisms, he quoted the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One." In the next phrase he praised God as "compassionate and merciful," the words religious Muslims incant regularly as they pray. And finally, he spoke of God's as "loving to everyone"—a reference, of course, to Jesus Christ.

Warren's pleas and exhortations were pregnant with double meanings. He begged God's forgiveness "when we fight each other" and "when we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect they deserve." To those engaged in the gay-marriage battle and the related war over the appropriateness of Warren's appearance on this stage, these lines will be parsed for meaning. But what was Warren really saying? Was he asking God's forgiveness for things he has said about homosexual behavior that have caused offense? Or was he asking God to forgive those groups who launched such virulent attacks against him? Or was he doing neither? Was he simply doing what people do when they pray: expressing gratitude and seeking forgiveness? Warren is savvy; he was not specific.

Finally Warren made the move that was both inevitable and surprising. He prayed in Jesus's name. Pastors at previous inaugurations have triggered controversy and lawsuits for explicitly Christian prayers, and pundits wondered aloud whether—given the tsunami of press that preceded this prayer—Warren would dare to stake out this turf. But Warren knows who he is. He is a conservative evangelical. There's nothing else for him to do. Once again, his phrasing was deft: he invoked Jesus for himself, not for the millions on the mall or the billions watching on television. "I humbly ask this," he said, "in the name of the one who changed my life…Jesus." A good job, and yet the lingering question remains. Warren's conservative theology teaches him that there is one path to God, and that is Jesus. So when he wraps his great big arms around Muslims and Jews (and homosexuals), does he really believe there's hope for us? Or is he just being nice?