Rick Warren's Predicament, Obama's Chilling Cleverness Print
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 06 January 2009

As we move each day closer to the Age of Obama, few things have been as chilling – or revealing – as that gesture offered as a grand show of “reaching out to the other side”: the invitation to the Rev. Rick Warren. Warren is the author of that highly noted work The Purpose Driven Life. He also presided over that famous session at the Saddleback Forum, in which Obama remarked, on the subject of abortion, that the question of when human life begins was one beyond his “pay grade.” That encounter turned out to be, for Obama, a minor disaster. All of which seemed to bespeak a large nature when he invited Pastor Warren to give one of the invocations at the upcoming inauguration.

For Warren has been quite clear in his public teaching as pro-life, opposed to same-sex marriage, and unwilling to regard the homosexual life on the same plane of legitimacy as that “sexuality imprinted in our natures.” The invitation to Warren has sparked cries of “betrayal” and spasms of violent outrage on the part of gay activists and the partisans of legal abortion. Another group, even more fevered, has sought to go to court to block Warren from invoking Jesus Christ on this high public occasion. Warren, an evangelical, professes not to know how to give anything called a prayer without invoking Christ. But while Warren has become a target of hatred, the clear winner, sailing serenely beyond it all, has been Barack Obama. As James Taranto of The Wall Street Journal observed, the show of hatred on the part of the Left has simply drawn to Obama the sympathy and good will of the religious in this country as he holds to his decision and refuses to disinvite Pastor Warren.

And yet, as this controversy has unfolded, there has been surprisingly little attention given to Warren's dilemma, or to injuries he is likely to impart by lending his benediction to this event. Against all reason, against all evidence available to the senses, the surveys reveal a bloc of people, evangelicals and Catholics, who actually think Obama is pro-life. For Warren to offer his blessings at the inauguration is to foster the impression, irresistibly, that Obama’s intentions reflect at least a good will, that his policies on abortion come well within the range that Warren may regard as defensible and legitimate.

And yet, any sober look at Obama’s record, and the planning for the new administration, should sweep away instantly any such benign haze. We already knew that on the first day in office, Obama would overturn the executive orders restored by President Bush barring the funds of the national government from any agency, foreign or domestic, that promoted or performed abortions. But with the departure of the Republican administration, there would be no veto on a host of measures that the Democratic majority has been gearing up to pass: the removal of restraints on the funding of abortions in military facilities, in every program and agency of the government and the District of Columbia, and even in the Indian Health service, with its program for Native Americans. Obama may emit sounds about finding common ground, but it would require a vast project in self-deception for anyone to believe that Obama would make the slightest concession to any moral premise on the pro-life side.

Pastor Warren cannot believe that his presence would do anything more than preserve, for certain evangelicals and Catholics, the deception that has beguiled them. But Warren’s dilemma was that he could not decorously refuse. He would appear small-natured, and his community of Christians narrow, unbending. Could he use the occasion, not only to invoke the Lord, but to raise anew the call to respect the lives of the unborn? That would only make things worse. For it would do nothing to summon Democrats and it would only further the impression that those pro-life sentiments were shared by the new president. Nothing has brought home more surely the consummate cleverness of Obama in offering that invitation to Warren, making it impossible for him to refuse, and gaining nothing but dividends for himself from every angle.

It would be unseemly for Warren to negotiate in public the terms of his participation, or to back out with denunciations of the man who invited him. I would float one alternative: that he should be frank in reviewing with Obama the awkwardness of his position, and that he should ask one small thing. Obama had declared that he too would have voted for the Born-Alive Infants’ Protection Act passed by Congress. Warren could now take him up on that avowal. The Bush Administration muffed the most serious case that came to it under that act. Since Obama wished to reach across the partisan division, would he take at least one of the cases presented to the government as the occasion for teaching a public lesson and enforcing that act?

Warren could leave with Obama the sole discretion and responsibility for making and keeping that promise, but with the proviso that he would be free, a few years hence, to tell the story. After two years, Obama and Warren would know whether that modest promise had been accepted and kept. In telling the rest of us, Warren could convey to us something truly revealing about this new president. But if he feels constrained from speaking, who would know? To adapt a line from Thomas More, Warren would know, Obama would know – and God would know. And the difference is that Warren would know that God knows.


Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College.

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