Rick Warren: An Inexact Analogy

The furor over Rick Warren is not about Inauguration Day but what comes after. When Barack Obama announced last month that Warren, the pastor of Saddleback Church and the author of "The Purpose Driven Life," would deliver the invocation at Obama's Inauguration (Joseph Lowery, cofounder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will give the benediction), supporters of gay marriage and abortion rights were stricken. Warren, after all, has been avowedly pro-life throughout his career. He supported Proposition 8, the successful California initiative banning gay marriage. Many on the cultural left worry that in the selection Warren has gained new stature as counselor to presidents. They worry, in other words, that Obama has made Warren the 21st century's Billy Graham.

They can rest easy. Rick Warren is not Billy Graham, for two simple reasons. First, the two men see their callings differently and, second, they came to fame in very different eras.

Graham always saw himself as an evangelist—as a preacher of the gospel, a man in search of souls to save. Unlike Warren, Graham was never a pastor. This is not to say that Graham has not spoken out on issues from time to time. He has. But he has always been more about filling the stadiums than he was about advising on ballot propositions. As an evangelist, Graham could focus less on this world and more on the one to come.

He is an accidental child of the center. He rose to prominence in the 1950s preaching passionately that the nation (and, as he went global, the world) should look to Jesus. It was an inherently conservative message in a moment when more and more Americans seemed to be turning awayfrom God. In the 1960s, when the black church and white liberal clergy embraced the antiwar movement, Graham was the most prominent citizen of the white, evangelical right. Other ministers in Graham's ethos—including a young Jerry Falwell in Lynchburg, Va.—tended to avoid politics altogether.

That all changed on Jan. 22, 1973. For evangelicals, the Supreme Court's decision to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade, was a clarion call to American political life. Men like the late Falwell and Pat Robertson grew their ministries by preaching a Christian obligation to wage the culture war, to see sin in America and fight it. But Graham largely kept his eye on the next world, leaving it to others to fight the battles of this one. His message became the middle.

Graham saw this transformation and accepted it. In a 2006 NEWSWEEK cover story, he said that he has from time to time felt the need to speak out on the pressing problems of man but that, to an evangelist, politics can't be "the main thing." In that story, Falwell recalled a conversation the two men had in Graham's kitchen. "There is no question that your role and mine are opposites," Falwell told Graham. "You are an evangelist, I am a pastor. I have prophetic responsibilities that you do not have."

Warren would clearly much rather be compared to Graham than Falwell. The 2002 publication of "The Purpose Driven Life" brought him great celebrity, which he has artfully cultivated to emerge as the face of moderate evangelism. His passions are global peace and fighting AIDS in Africa. No evangelical has forged so many alliances with liberals and non-Christians since, well, Billy Graham.

Still, Falwell's distinction is the crucial one: at the end of the day, Warren is a pastor, and very much of this world. He wears jeans and button-down shirts and peppers his speech with colloquialisms. His ministry has always been about engaging the culture, whether that means instructing pastors to infuse their services with contemporary music or helping to fight global AIDS. Once in the culture, it is hard for a pastor to go back, which is why, in October, Warren announced on his Web site that "if you believe what the Bible says about marriage, you need to support Proposition 8."

With the Inaugural invitation, and the subsequent controversy, Obama has assured conservatives that he respects their point of view. But the attention it has brought to Warren's views on homosexuality makes him look more like Obama's friend on the Christian right. This helps Obama, but it does not boost Warren's centrist appeal. "During the entire campaign season," says David Chrzan, Warren's chief of staff, "Pastor Warren only once addressed the Proposition 8 issue through a single internal communication in response to questions from his congregation the week before the election. His calling is as a paramedic—not a policeman—for the Kingdom of God, to preach the good news of grace, assist the poor and care for the sick. He has become a target not because he is the most vocal, but rather the most visible, among pastors defending the biblical definition of marriage."

Lost amid the controversy is a sad irony: Obama needs a Billy Graham. The last Inaugural invocation Graham delivered was for Bill Clinton in 1997. "We need your insight," Graham prayed. "We need your compassion." In this troubled moment, Obama needs Graham's message: that there are mysteries neither a pastor nor a president can fully comprehend.