President elect Barack Obama almost certainly knew that he’d take some heavy flack from gay rights and abortion rights groups for picking mega preacher Rick Warren to give his inaugural invocation. Warren backed the anti gay marriage Prop 8 in California to the hilt and rails against abortion. But Obama picked Warren for shrewd political and apparently heartfelt personal reasons. A tip of that came back in mid-August when he traipsed to Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California to talk to his evangelical flock.
At the time Warren reportedly had to arm twist some of his more recalcitrant members into accepting Obama’s appearance. But accept they did. Or at least they didn't publicly grouse about it. But Obama also did his part to make the sell. He flatly said that he’d do more than any other presumed liberal Democrat had done in recent times to get an ear from evangelicals even if that meant breaking bread with preachers who were hardnosed opponents of gay rights and abortion.
The Warren visit wasn’t really anything new in Obama’s drive to court the evangelicals. In January when he needed to snatch the legions of black voters away from backing Hillary Clinton in the South Carolina Democratic primary he did the politically expedient thing and grabbed at the hugely popular gospel crooner Donnie McClurkin. He ignored the loud shouts that McClurkin was a gay bashing homophobe and headlined him at a giant part revival part campaign rally in the state.
Obama understood the power of religion, the evangelical appeal that is, to lure thousands of doubting and hostile believers to his fold. He has written and repeatedly talked about his professed testament of faith and deep belief in traditional religious values.
But the Warren pick is more than a crass political move. It’s about numbers and influence. The surge in mega churches such as Warren's Saddleback Church with membership that tops 30,000 and the proliferation of televangelist programs, and Christian broadcast networks nationally and in local areas has made it easier to spread the evangelical message and subtly influence political causes. The Association of Evangelicals has been on the frontline in fulfilling that mission. The NAE had nearly 50,000 member congregations with 30 million members in 2005.In a survey by the Detroit News in 2005 following Bush's reelection the question was asked whether the church should have more influence in politics. Nearly sixty percent agreed. Though the majority of Christian evangelicals are Republican leaning, many of them are Democrats too (about thirty percent in some surveys), and that boded well for Obama during the election. They would vote for Democratic candidates as long as they are conservative and adhere to the moral values tenets. Obama just had to make sure that he toed just close enough to their line on faith and morals values issues to not have them dash to the barricades to vote against him as would have been the case if Hillary had been the nominee. Obama spotted a small opening to the evangelicals with the death of Jerry Falwell in May 2007. The evangelicals no longer had a nationally known name leader of stature to rally, inflame, implore, and energize them, and with the abysmal failure of the Bush and the GOP congress to get any thing done on their agenda opposing abortion and gay marriage evangelicals had hopelessly soured on them. The talk then and now is that many young evangelicals aren't totally consumed by these issues and are more worried about the economy, the war, poverty, HIV/AIDS and global warming. There is some truth to that and Warren has certainly harped on those themes to help push his following off the charts. The larger truth, though, is that not all evangelicals share the same politics, ideology, and or hardly uniform in their thinking on abortion, gay marriage, and family values issues. Many are liberal, moderate, and even solid Democrats. They do care about the economy, education, health care. Some are even supportive of abortion and gay rights, deeply opposed to the Iraq war, and backed Obama.
But millions more didn't and still have no hesitation in describing and identifying as evangelicals and loyally backing GOP candidates with their votes and organizing for them. Christian evangelical leaders have long known that if they could galvanize the faithful they could not only elect local and state officials but presidents as well. They also knew that they could influence if not outright dictate public policy, namely passing legislation, initiatives, and amendments, and influencing public opinion.The sixty to eighty million Christian evangelicals are still too big, too important, and to politically strategic to ignore. Obama knows that and that’s a big reason Warren will pray at his inaugural and will get Obama’s ear after the prayers end.Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How Obama Won (Middle Passage Press January 2009)