Warren, redux

WARREN, REDUX…. After having had a chance to sleep on it, does Barack Obama’s decision to invite Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his presidential inauguration look any better? Actually, no. I’m probably even more annoyed about it now than I was yesterday.

That said, I’ve been curious to see what others have come up with as a defense. I suppose, to borrow Rachel Maddow’s phrase, I want someone to “talk me down.”

Over at TNR, Damon Linker considers the invitation “shrewd.”

Warren is beloved by mainstream evangelicals, who have helped him to sell millions of books extolling a fairly anodyne form of American Protestantism. (Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell he is not.) It is in Obama’s interest (and the Democrats’) to peel as many moderate evangelicals away from the GOP as he can. Giving Warren such a prominent (but purely symbolic) place in the inauguration is a politically cost-free way of furthering this partisan agenda.

That’s not a bad pitch, but I’m not persuaded. Warren’s theology is offered in soothing tones, but it’s hardly “anodyne” — Warren’s worldview is very conservative on gay rights, reproductive rights, foreign policy, and modern science. He’s not exactly of Dobson’s ilk, but the difference is one of tenor and emphasis — they agree on most issues.

The notion of peeling off moderate evangelicals from the GOP is compelling, but is there any evidence to suggest Warren’s invocation is going to make a difference in that capacity? Obama did fairly well among moderate evangelicals, especially younger ones, on Election Day, and the courtship could have continued apace with an invocation from a religious leader who actually shares Obama’s worldview.

Indeed, I wonder if Linker has this backwards. When Obama advances a progressive agenda on social issues, as he’s certain to do, Warren will continue to speak out on the other side — only now, he’ll do so with the added authority that comes with being the president’s hand-chosen pastor for the inauguration’s invocation. Warren’s status will soar, and his criticism of Obama’s policies — or Democrats’ in general — will resonate that much louder.

That’s not “cost-free”; it’s the opposite.

Linker noted that Warren’s role is “purely symbolic,” and this much is clearly true. Indeed, John Cole made a compelling case on this, arguing, “I would much rather have Warren given a few minutes to speak about religion at a time and manner appropriate for religious discussion than I would having Obama give a nod to the religious right by appointing the God squad to Justice, to the FDA, to NASA, and so on. When Rick Warren and folks like him are driving policy in an Obama administration, I will then muster the necessary outrage. So while not my first choice, not a big deal. Let him speak for a few minutes and be done with them.”

Perhaps. If there was any reason at all to think Warren’s invocation carried with it policy implications for the Obama administration, it would be far more serious. In fact, I suspect Warren will get a very high-profile role on Jan. 20, but have no meaningful influence at the White House on Jan. 21.

Nevertheless, even if it is symbolism, the Warren choice strikes me as Obama’s biggest mistake since the election. He’s elevating a conservative religious leader to new heights, giving him stature and credibility, and making his far-right message that much more meaningful when he challenges Obama administration policies in the future.

It’s all risk, no reward.