Thursday, December 18, 2008

Pastor of Puppets

I greatly respect both Barack Obama's genuine desire to ensure that Americans of every stripe have a voice in our new government and his political savvy in reaching out to his ideological adversaries. But none of that makes me feel any better about the fact that Pastor Rick Warren -- he of those insipid Purpose Driven Life books and the Saddleback Mega-Church in Orange County, California -- has been picked to deliver the invocation at Obama's inauguration.

That Warren's hyper-conservative beliefs stand in such stark social and cultural contrast to Obama's own worldview would be reason enough to question the choice. It's easy to understand why some Obama supporters -- particularly gay voters, who see Warren and his flock as having been instrumental in the passing of California's Prop 8 -- feel like it's a very personal betrayal.

My discomfort, though, has less to do with any one issue than it does with the idea of the highest office in the free world once again cozying up to the lowest common denominator among America's faithful -- validating that group's absurd, irrational and often aggressively exclusionary belief system. While having someone like Rick Warren -- a man who's bested only by Jesus and Elvis in the hearts and minds of the NASCAR demographic -- up there next to our new president on inauguration day does send a clear message that all views will be given consideration from this point forward, it may also send a signal to those who happen to hold the one view that's been allowed to dominate the discourse for the past eight years that they'll continue to be deferred to.

It's not so much that Pastor Rick is getting an audience with the new president of the United States -- it's that he'll be seated at his right hand on day one.

This could very well be part of a smart strategy, showing even those who stood against Obama during the campaign that, as president, he wants to take immediate steps toward healing the nation -- or it could just be that since Obama and Warren are reportedly friends, the choice makes a certain amount of sense. Regardless though, and as much as I trust Barack Obama's judgment, it ties my stomach in knots to watch another political administration treating the Rick Warrens of the world as if they're anything more than simply the CEOs of Jesus Inc. -- carnival barking purveyors of "Evangelitainment," with ostentatious, monolithic temples and excellent PR firms.

Warren's undeniably overpowering presence on inauguration day makes it seem as if God -- specifically the Pentecostal or Southern Baptist version of God -- will continue to be granted ascendancy within our government.

And after what this country has endured the past eight years -- the heinous sins committed by those who claim to be acting on God's behalf and who seek the unconditional allegiance of those who worship him -- this should be the last thing any clear-thinking, rational American wants to see.

What follows is a related piece published here in August of this year. It was written the day after Pastor Rick Warren's "Compassion Forum," held at his Saddleback Mega-Church, in which both John McCain and Barack Obama answered questions put to them by Warren. They were questions dealing mostly with "values, virtue and character," and ones which needed to be answered because, in the words of Rick Warren, "God says so."

I think Joan Walsh perfectly put into words my feelings and fears about last night's command performance by Barack Obama and John McCain at the Saddleback Mega-Church in Orange County, California. The candidates came to prostrate themselves before Pastor Rick Warren and, by proxy, his legion of disciples and their particular belief system. This morning in a piece entitled "Are We Now Officially a Christian Nation?" Walsh wrote this about Obama, who's taking the walk-of-shame this morning after being used like a drunk sorority sister last night:

"(Obama) did reasonably well, though not overwhelmingly so. I loved his saying he wouldn't have appointed Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, and his firm support of choice and gay civil unions. He seemed very comfortable talking about his Christian faith. On the other hand, that bothered me a little bit too. I'm not sure why Obama voluntarily sat down for a nationally televised conversation about his private religious faith with a relatively conservative Christian leader, as though that's a reasonable station of the cross, so to speak, for a major American presidential candidate. There's no doubt Rick Warren's congregation has done good things on social justice issues, especially AIDS, but Warren has made no secret of his extreme views on abortion and gay rights (as well as his support for the Iraq war.) Obama visiting the church, speaking there? Smart politics. Attending a nationally televised forum, almost as big deal as a debate, at such a church? I think that was wrong."

Her point, put bluntly: Why should either Barack Obama or John McCain -- let alone both of them -- have to answer to a smugly self-satisfied Rick Warren and his flock? (Besides the most pragmatic of reasons: because they represent a large voting bloc.) If it truly is about a respect for their beliefs, which are no more sound than those of any other religion out there, then why not pander equally to Muslims, or Buddhists, or Hindus, or, for that matter, Atheists? Obama in particular is finding his Christian faith questioned and doubted at every turn by many of the very same people he was forced -- and yes, I'll use that word because it fits -- to put himself in the line of fire of last night.

So why?

If the question of why he allowed it to occur seems too obvious, then try this one: Why have we allowed it? We've seen what happens when our nation is hijacked by one faith above all others and its fundamentalist followers are given an inordinately booming voice in its government. We've lived with the results for eight years. So why aren't the rest of us, the millions and millions of Americans who don't worship at the various altars of Christian dogma, demanding that people like Pastor Rick Warren -- the Oprah of pop-Christianity -- sit the hell down and shut up? Or better yet, why aren't we demanding that our candidates simply not come running like obedient dogs every time someone like Warren snaps his fingers and invokes Jesus and votes and the connection between the two, which apparently will not be denied?

If we're going to continue even further down this path, though -- further than we've already gone -- let's at least be fair about it. I want Obama and McCain to appear before Tom Cruise at a "Scientology Symposium." Xenu commands it.

And after that, they can hit Albus Dumbledore's "Wizard-Con" at Hogwarts to discuss what they plan to do to help protect the country in the coming battle with the Dark Lord Voldemort.

Think this sounds silly? Ask Rick Warren and his church what they believe some time. Trust me: Disneyland isn't the only garish monument to a fairy tale in Orange County.


Deacon Blue said...

Can't really defend the decision much, though I assume he's got some strategic or symbolic reasons for this...can't imagine he wants to get all that cozy with the man.

As for God...well, I don't see a day any time soon where God won't be a part of American politics. But you know, as long as they stop trying to put specifically Christian doctrine into the laws, that doesn't pose a problem per se.

Much like lobbyists, it's just part of the process and system.

Gunny Geek said...

Maybe this is his one concession to them. He can use this as an excuse to ignore anything from the extremely religious in the future. The invocation means nothing, has absolutely no bearing over any President's time in office. It will not alienate the reasonable secular masses, although the opposite would definitely throw into a tizzy those that feel the need to shriek at any perceived slight.

Anonymous said...

Free speech and inclusion are a little harder when they incorporates people and ideas you don't agree with.

Chez said...

Warren has every right to believe and say whatever he wants. I'm just not sure the government should be embracing and validating it from day one.

Deacon Blue said...

Warren has a mega-church. He's already got tons of public validation, in my opinion (for better or worse).

I don't think that giving the invocation, even at the Obama inauguration, will validate him more. He's catching flak from the right for giving this prayer, so in the end, his "validation" will probably even out.

It's a highly public forum, sure, but it's a tiny piece of the inaguration and, frankly, I don't see this as some sign that the Obama administration wants to give blowjobs to the conservative Christians.

Duane said...

I really don't see any difference between Billy Graham and this douche. They're both charlatans in my book. Religion in general is all about someone else telling you how to live your life so I couldn't care less who belches from the inaugural pulpit.

What baffles me is why evangelicals have such a voice in this country. These are usually the folks who have messed up so badly in life and are so lost because of it that they'll follow any kook in a bedraggled beard who offers them a hug. Any time these people are given any sort of power it ends badly, i.e. Bush '42. 'nough said.

jgodsey said...

tell me again why there is a prayer during a POLITICAL EVENT?


Anonymous said...

What is the difference between, "In God We Trust" being on our money and this?

Mack said...

Obama has been attended a conservative Christian church for a long time. Reverend Wright anyone? It's his religion, it's his right.

Just like you don't want Christianity shoved down your throat; other people don't want atheism shoved down theirs.

VOTAR said...

I think it's a clever move, and Gunny (and Deacon, but from a different angle) is right on target.

There's gonna be an invocation anyway, right? It's a long-standing tradition as part of the ceremony.

So why not co-opt, and thereby diffuse, the zeal of the christian right?

It's something we're already seeing the Obama transition team doing quite well: political hegemony.

Invite your partisan opponents into the tent with you. Make very bold public choices that force your critics into silence by appearing to give them what they claim they want. And frankly, it might actually have the added benefit of not really being as cynical as that; a genuine healing moment might occur between two political/philosophical viewpoints that might take the opportunity to find more common ground.

The Sean Hannitys and Rush Limbaughs will still huff and puff and babble on about Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, but something like this only helps make their protestations that much more embarrassing and irrelevant.

Chez said...

Mack -- there's nothing to shove. Atheism isn't an ideology, it's the absence of one.

Deacon Blue said...

VOTAR got me thinking about something just now...'s really hard to figure out sometimes what Obama is thinking or, some might say, what he's up to.

I find it hard to pinpoint where he's going and why sometimes. Now, I had the same problem understanding why Bush-Cheney did a lot of what they did, against all common sense.

The refreshing thing here is that I can have some faith that intelligence is at the root of Obama's frustrating and inscutable decisions rather than simply avarice. In fact, at this point, even if Obama is being "sneaky" at times or has some sort of agenda we might not like, I at least appreciate that he's not an idiot and he doesn't seem to act on a whim.

Thank God for that...might even be enough to start the rebuilding process in this nation.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone's actually seen Rick Warren's church, but it's HUGE. Unbelivably HUGE. It's like a compound. I drove down the toll roads (hee! I almost typed "tool") one day and thought the buildings along the freeway was some corporate plaza (since there are a lot of those here in OC), until my friend informed me that, nope...that's Saddleback.

I joke with my friends that Orange County is really the "Orange Curtain", but that joke becomes less funny and more true nowadays. Not only do we have Saddleback Church in OC, but we also have the TBN Station, which has Christmas lights and a sign that says "Happy Birthday Jesus!" on ALL. YEAR. ROUND.

I need to move from this place.

[end rant]

Mack said...

God, my grammar sucks today.

I understand the absence of a religious ideology. I have no religion. I don't care enough or have the drive for that much devotion for anything but the gym these days. I just exist. Some days better than others.

Coming from you and your powerful writing voice, it does feel like a push or a shove just as strong as the one's from the right. Unfortunately for me my mind is a giant devil’s advocate and when I feel a strong push from an opposite side I react and feel I have to defend. There are days when I’m not sure what I believe or how I feel. I look highly upon people who have very strong opinions and can voice them thusly. That’s probably why I keep coming back here.

Chez said...

Anon --

I lived in LA for quite a while.

Always knew better than to travel behind the Orange Curtain.

Michael J. West said...

I'd love to believe that atheism was the absence of an ideology -- and perhaps for you, Chez, it is. But the fact that there is such a thing as an "Atheist Convention/Conference," complete with keynote speakers, panels, workshops and small-group discussions, and that they occur regularly throughout the U.S. and I assume the world, suggests that for a significant swath of atheists, it IS an ideology.

People who had no ideology would have nothing to that needed reinforcing -- at, say, a convention or conference.

Chez said...

And people with true faith wouldn't shout "See!?" every time someone thinks they've discovered an artifact that proves Jesus's existence as related in the Bible. Faith doesn't need evidence (or so I'm told).

Atheists gather, I'd imagine, because a lack of organization would mean that their voices would never be heard. Amazingly, when it comes to religion in this country, it's not up to the faithful -- who have no evidence to back anything up -- to prove their claims. The God-fearing are so vast in numbers that it's become the responsibility of the atheist, for who the hell knows what reason, to prove his case -- when all he's doing is not believing in something ridiculous.

Michael J. West said...

I don't want either the faithful OR the faithless to prove their case. I want them both to shut up and leave the rest of us (agnostic in my case, but more generally those who are somewhere in the middle) alone. I don't need to hear anybody's voice about it, let alone a second voice that insists on the need to prove the first one wrong.

kanye said...

I'm with Mack. Obama picked the person who best represents his own views. There's plenty of evidence, in the form of his own words, to suggest this being the case and nothing that I know of to suggest otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I am a gay man, attended UC Irvine, and was very active with the OC GOP for a while during and soonafter college until about the time I came out of the closet and said WTF. But this was before the GOP's initiated culture war with the gays. Still, it was a struggle people to say the least!

Keep in mind though, with all the fucking white bread and Vietnamese right wingers, living along the coast whether in HB, Newport or Laguna Beaches makes you tolerate these douchebags.
What's the subject matter?

Oh yes. As a gay man and an Obama supporter, I am not that much troubled by his choice. But if obama can't see its impossible to work and please these theocrats (just look at them now, they're cursing Warren for accepting Barack's invit), if Obama cannot fathom how cancerous their mindset is and doesn't move full steam ahead to repeal DOMA or allow gays in the military then I question his sanity and would conclude he was a bigger carnival salesman than Rick Warren et al. But I expect
I am wrong and he gets those things done like above, but along the way I also expect he will play footsie with the worst of the worst of the "movement" so the next several years should be interesting.

He's not one to shut down the other side so easily even though he has the political hammer to tell Sen Inohfye and Coburn to sit down and shut the fuck up!

aaron said...

"Evangelitainment" - awesome, I'm totally stealing that!

I'm with you Michael, except I'm a believer. And you know what? I wish everyone would just shut the hell up and instead do their damndest to prove their viewpoint or faith as the best choice by doing their utmost to improve the lots of the poor, sick, homeless, imprisoned, oppressed, and undesirables. First one to eliminate human misery and poverty wins!

While I'm dreaming, I'd like my Canucks to become a Stanley Cup-winning dynasty...

devoutatheist said...

I'm glad that finally atheism has numerous voices. Bertrand Russell was my anchor. Eventually this god-stuff will be replaced by new-improved god-stuff.

Who worships Neptune anymore?

Chez, thanks for voicing.

Lori said...

The real problem, as I see it, is that anyone who does not conform to your own atheist beliefs makes you want to jump out of your skin, Mr. Pazienza. We all get that feeling about one thing or another in this world. As a separate note, what does Obama truly stand for? Has he consistently adhered to anything other than being anti-Bush? I think not. He is a relatively new player in the world of politics. Trying appeal to anyone where he can, in this case the "Disneyland Christians", rather than being himself demonstrates his naivety as a leader. I fully expect to see four years of similar decisions on his part. He did not, however, run for president of the United States to ram his personal beliefs down others throats contrary to the hopes of most left-wingers. For this we should all be grateful.

Chez said...

Still milking that "What does Obama stand for?" argument, eh?

Sorry, but that's just ridiculous at this point -- but feel free to continue using it if it works for you.

As for his willingness to embrace those who disagree with his own views, I've already said that he's a far better man than I am in that respect.

Deacon Blue said...

Well, I think there may be times, Lori, that I cause Chez to get a slightly hive-like itch with my religious beliefs...but I'm pretty sure I haven't made him want to jump out of his skin yet. I don't even think I've initiated a extra-corporeal-ejection reaction from VOTAR yet, even though we've had a few debates back and forth.

(Of course, only they know for sure)

Really, while I think Chez (and VOTAR) may underestimate the ideological nature of their beliefs, I think they are capable of being in the same room with a Christian and maybe even talking religion from time to time. It's all in the approach and how much arrogance vs. humility or open-mindedness vs. dismissiveness the person brings to the table.

I mean, I don't want to shoot down Chez's projected demeanor of misanthropic snarkiness or anything, but I like to think if I were passing through NYC for some damn reason and had a lot of time to kill, he'd be able to sit down an have a mocha and conversation with me.

Unless I started speaking in tongues or something. Then I think he'd smack me.

Gunny Geek said...

Micheal, the fact that atheists gather in any way does not suggest there is an ideology behind the label. If this were true, you could say the same of computer geeks, that they have an underlying ideology, because IT people gather in the same ways you described above.

"People who had no ideology would have nothing to that needed reinforcing -- at, say, a convention or conference."

This assumes the purpose of such gatherings is reinforcement. It may be in some cases, but not all. I meet with other atheists on occasion, and we do so to interact with other rational people, not to reinforce our ideas. In fact, you could say an underlying objective to a person attending would be seeking out alternative ideas. On the other hand, the stated purpose when religious people congregate is explicit reinforcement, and a religious leader will have no problem stating this outright. Faith by definition, as it relates to a higher power, needs reinforcement due to its very nature, because a person naturally tends to rationalize and this is corrosive to religioius doctrine.

It IS amazing, as Chez puts it, that any proof is assumed to be shouldered by the atheist. It is rarely mentioned that there would be no need for "proving" the non-existence of a deity, or a need for the atheist label, if there were no religions in the world. The whole notion would be irrelevant at best. Sam Harris articulates this well in a talk he gave (links below), and even goes so far as to reject the label because of this.