Of Politicians, Pastors, and Prayer

by Phillip Luke Sinitiere

Here's a piece Shayne Lee and I wrote about Rick Warren, Barack Obama, and the inaugural prayer. It relates to some of the ideas behind contemporary Protestant evangelical religious leadership and American culture, which we detail in our forthcoming Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, April 2009).

It is crossposted at From the Square, NYU Press's blog.


Numerous journalists, political pundits, and scholars are discussing and debating Barack Obama’s decision to invite California pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural prayer, particularly in the context of Warren’s support for California’s Proposition 8.

E.J. Dionne’s New Republic column, for example, titled “Big Tent,” (HT: John Fea) a thoughtful analysis of the Obama-Warren issue, reports that some wonder to what extent Obama has betrayed his liberal politics, while others embrace Obama’s decision and call for a more enlightened liberal politics. Christianity Today, the leading magazine of evangelical thought and culture, features some writers who are asking if Warren is the next Graham, or if he’s transcended the aged leader’s stature. Another voice of the religious right, Steve Brody’s blog at the Christian Broadcasting Network, “The Brody File,” (HT: Get Religion) features e-lamentations about Warren’s decision to pray at the inauguration. Alan Wolfe’s New Republic piece “Obama’s New Pastor Problem?,” (HT: John Fea) offers further contextualization about Warren and the religious right. And corroborating Steve Brody’s blog, Rachel Zoll’s article points out that some of Warren’s toughest critics are those on the religious right. Sociologist Gerardo Marti offers a brief history of Warren his Southern California context, what he calls “Warren-ology.” Religious studies scholar Anthony Pinn provides precise analysis of theology, political compromise, and the presidency, and historian of religion Anthea Butler contends that president-elect Obama misgauges Americans’ religious convictions.

Obama’s choice of Warren to pray at the inauguration—and in particular the range of responses this choice has elicited—gives us occasion to reflect on Protestant evangelical religious leaders we call “holy mavericks,” five of whom we discuss and analyze in Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.

We contend that Rick Warren is a holy maverick. Simply put, a holy maverick is an enterprising religious leader who crafts his or her ministry to a particular niche (or niches) in the spiritual marketplace. Holy mavericks are talented and savvy spiritual suppliers we call innovators, efficiently successful at recalibrating their messages and ministries toward the existential needs and tastes of church-going America. Houston minister Joel Osteen, for example, effectively marketed messages and books titled Your Best Life Now (2004) and Become a Better You (2007). Osteen’s brand of self-help spirituality reaches millions, and gains new followers each day.

Holy mavericks can be a fascination to the general public, and command wide audiences with messages of purpose, empowerment, and uplift. Rick Warren, for instance, took his purpose driven message to professional sporting events, political meetings, and to pastors in Africa. He also recently addressed the Muslim Public Affairs Convention in southern California. Holy mavericks can also exist as a thorn in the flesh of gatekeepers of church traditions who chide innovators for casting wide nets and polluting the gospel with “watered-down” versions of Christianity. Holy mavericks can elicit both intense loyalty and venomous contempt from clerical peers and congregants.

Another distinguishing mark of a holy maverick is his or her ability to sense how historical moments and opportunity structures shape their messages and marketability and help to bring their individual initiatives to fruition. Holy mavericks possess social, cultural, and spiritual dexterity. Put another way, holy mavericks are brilliant at surfing spiritual waves, a practice in which spiritual leaders discern where God is moving in one’s cultural milieu, and then prepare their churches and themselves to cooperate with the movement. Here’s Rick Warren: “Three key responsibilities of every pastor are to discern where God’s spirit is moving in our culture and time, prepare your congregation for that movement, and cooperate with it to reach people Jesus died for. I call it ‘surfing spiritual waves.’”

Warren knows that of which he speaks. Consider these snapshots from his recent activities: not many other preachers are friends with the president of Rwanda, write a monthly column for Ladies Home Journal, and receive a standing ovation after speaking at Harvard University. Not many other conservative pastors possess the flexibility to be pro-life and pro-poor, the ingenuity to lead a preaching seminar for rabbis at the University of Judaism, or the versatility to work and dine with homosexual activists while maintaining a firm stance against same-sex marriage. Not many spiritual leaders mentor prominent businesspersons like Rupert Murdock and Jack Welch, or can claim that after three decades of ministry, they have never been alone in a room with a woman other than their wife. Few evangelical pastors are friends with both President George W. Bush and Democratic president-elect Barack Obama, a notable participant at Warren’s 2006 Global Summit on AIDS and the recent Presidential Forum, both at Saddleback Church. And Warren’s latest book, The Purpose of Christmas, adds further insight into the complexity of this holy maverick’s cosmopolitan outlook. It continues to articulate the readable simplicity of the purpose-driven message and hit the major points of conservative evangelical theology (e.g., centrality of Jesus, authority of Bible, etc.). Yet with a closing chapter on Warren’s P.E.A.C.E. plan, it registers as decidedly cosmopolitan in outlook and activist in tone.

And there’s even more to the relationship between Warren and Obama: the president-elect launched a “40 Days of Faith and Family” tour while campaigning in October 2007 in South Carolina, an initiative clearly adapted from Warren’s popular “40 Days of Purpose” movement from a few years previous. (Read first-hand accounts about “40 Days of Faith and Family” from Obama’s website.)

So if Rick Warren is accustomed to surfing spiritual waves, and if Obama is serious about working across political lines as he embraces the change he promised, then Warren accepting Obama’s invitation to give the inaugural prayer is neither out of character nor a simple, shrill political move. It is a holy maverick at work.

If Warren is serious about working for social, political, and economic change through his P.E.A.C.E. plan and if Obama is serious about embodying change in today’s combative and partisan political order, and if these two visionaries will work together—at least for a day—then perhaps history will observe that the real mavericks of the 2008 Presidential election cycle were not, in fact, John McCain and Sarah Palin, but Barack Obama and Rick Warren. Why? In the midst of differences, each appears willing to find common ground in order to work together. Perhaps we all have something to learn from pastors and politicians after all.


Anonymous said…
Excellent post. In terms of his impact on the ecclesiastical world, I must admit that I'm not really a big fan of Rick Warren. That said, I do respect his sincerity and think he deserves a hearing. The future of the Obama-Warren relationship will be interesting to track.

I look forward to Holy Mavericks. Sounds like a great read.

Regarding the five that are analyzed, I wonder what the contributors and readers of this blog think of them. My opinion of them ranks the following way (from lowest to highest): 1) Paula White; 2) Joel Osteen; 3) T.D. Jakes; 4) Rick Warren; 5) Brian McLaren.

McLaren gets my best ranking because I like the questions he asks even when I don't care for his answers. Warren's ecclesiology is problematic for me, but I think he's a good contributor to the conversation and I think he really does care about people. I also admire T.D. Jakes's geniune concern for people, but his theology is way too influenced by
"prosperity dogma". Osteen really, REALLY annoys me, and I think his teaching is way outside the bounds of reality. However, I have no reason to doubt his intentions. Paula White is another matter entirely. She strikes me as a person who's in it purely for the fame and fortune (I am truly sorry if I'm wrong in that assessment, but that's my honest take).

The commonality does seem to be their good sense of what people are looking for. I can't wait to see how Holy Mavericks breaks down their particular marketing geniuses.
Mike Pasquier said…
Thanks for the post, Phil. FYI: In her excellent book _Your Spirits Walk Beside Us: The Politics of Black Religion_, Barbara Dianne Savage provides an insightful comparison of Obama's and Wright's public roles as political and religious leaders. This may be the first, or at least one of the first published books to discuss this matter. She situates both of them within the larger debate over the portrayal of the "black community" and the "black church." In her Savage's words, "They both were guilty of collapsing the diversity and distinctiveness among black churches for the sake of political argument." And now we have the Warren/maverick factor to contend with.
Gerardo Marti said…
Nice post, Phil. You may be right - Obama/Warren may be stimulating religious innovation in unexpected ways, especially when it seemed like Obama's long-time membership at Trinity in Chicago might have given greater prominence to the Black Church. Then came the Jeremiah Wright controversy. Now, it's a church in white, wealthy Orange County that gets the attention. Go figure.
Art Remillard said…
It looks like Mark Silk checks this blog... He writes:

"The thing is, changing a few names and titles, everything here fits Billy to a T. Yes, Warren built his church into a kind of mini-denomination rather than preaching the Gospel to crowds around the world. Other than that, all that makes him mavericky is that, among those of his generation, he's emulating Graham rather than, say, Jerry Falwell. And that goes for the Africa stuff as well. As Wacker presented it, Graham's last great accomplishment, beginning two decades ago, was his embrace of “global justice”--an expansion of the evangelical social vision to include the material needs of Christians in the Third World. One might say that the so-called new evangelical agenda is simply the latter-day Graham agenda."
Phil said…
Mike: thanks for the kind words, and I’ll check out Savage. I have the book but have not made it to the final chapters. Thanks for the lead.

Gerardo: great observations as usual. Religious innovation can go in may directions. This story will be interesting to watch.

Art: thanks for link to Silk’s comments. I wish I could have heard Wacker’s paper. Anybody else want to weigh in on Waker’s address? Sounds like it was fascinating.

Manlius: thanks for the thoughtful response. And I look forward to your assessment/analysis of HM.

Personally, I’m less inclined to “rank” the holy mavericks, as it were, and more interested in their place/location in American culture. As you will see in HM we don’t analyze theology per se, but simply try to historically situate the theologies of the holy mavericks and explain their cultural impacts/influences.
Unknown said…
Your conclusion - In the midst of differences, each appears willing to find common ground in order to work together - strikes me as very important. A willingness to come together has been so lacking the last decade in politics. We've let our differences polarize us instead of seeking what we share in faith, and it is sharing and working together which makes us strong. Obama has shown that this is one of his strengths, which has been encouraging to me. I hope it encourages others and makes them think about how they react to his decisions. I think we all could learn something from him.

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