Pastor Rick Warren To Give Inauguration Invocation

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Besides filling Cabinet posts, President-elect Barack Obama has been announcing the program for next month's inauguration ceremonies. A lot of controversy followed the announcement that Pastor Rick Warren, a social conservative, will give the invocation.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One choice by President-elect Obama has stirred widespread debate. It's the pastor Mr. Obama has chosen to give the invocation at his inauguration. That honor goes to Rick Warren, best-selling author, pastor of a megachurch here in Southern California, and also a social conservative. The selection dismayed liberal activists who were already less then excited about some of Mr. Obama's Cabinet choices. For some analysis, we turn now to NPR news analyst Juan Williams. Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: What exactly makes Rick Warren such a lightning rod at this point in time to the activists who supported Barack Obama?

WILLIAMS: Well, he's a big opponent of abortion rights in the country, Renee. So right there off the bat that puts him at quite a variance with many of Barack Obama's supporters. But he's also equated gay marriage to legalizing polygamy, incest, child abuse. So this is someone who is very strong on a number of these culture war issues, but strong from a conservative point of view. That's creating dismay among Barack Obama's more liberal supporters.

In fact, when you think about it, Barack Obama himself opposed the California constitutional ban on gay marriage that Rick Warren supported. Although Barack Obama says he opposes same-sex marriage, he is for civil unions. So on so many of these key issues, here is a variance between Barack Obama and Rick Warren, and yet Rick Warren is given this tremendous honor to deliver the invocation at the inauguration.

MONTAGNE: Well, on the question of Proposition 8 here in California, in an opinion article in the popular liberal Web site, the Huffington Post, the writer called this a, quote, "act of spiritual violence against lesbian and gay American citizens" - that is that Rick Warren had supported Proposition 8 - called it a betrayal of Obama's philosophy that he would choose him.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Renee, Obama's team sees this as an opportunity to push an alliance with Rick Warren and make inroads with evangelical voters, who have been key, as you know, to the Republican base for many years. So Rick Warren, though, I've got to tell you, has sought to change the face of the evangelicals from the days of jerry Falwell and the singular focus on abortion. Instead, what Rick Warren is trying to do is say there's a sin out there in terms of poverty, disease, and hunger. He's been very active in Africa in terms of combating AIDS and making it possible for more children in Africa to go to school.

That agenda fits with President-elect Obama's agenda. And it's why Rick Warren invited the candidate Obama in the general election to his Saddleback Church in Southern California for a very public interview on the very same night that Rick Warren was giving the stage to John McCain, the Republican nominee. So this is an opportunity for Barack Obama to reach back out to Rick Warren and to reach out to the evangelical community that he hopes he can win over and make part of his base.

MONTAGNE: Ok, so they do have some things in common, others not. But is this particular choice a signal of any kind of the type of president that Barack Obama wants to be?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think it is, Renee. I think there's a pattern here. If we look at the Cabinet appointments, you look at the selection of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation, and you see that President-elect Obama is emphasizing pragmatism and experience over ideology. As I said, you look at the Cabinet choices. It's not just that he's made some Republicans members of his Cabinet, but he's also made a real point of having moderate Democrats.

So it's all about experience and pragmatism. You think of Tim Geithner at Treasury, Jim Jones as national security advisor, Steven Chu at energy, Arne Duncan at education. All of these folks are about the work, not the ideology. You would never have picked them out as visionaries or people who have strong credentials on the left.

MONTAGNE: And of course, Robert Gates, secretary of defense, carrying over from the Bush administration and from overseeing a very unpopular war, especially among progressive Democrats in the Bush administration.

WILLIAMS: Right. And that fits with Hillary Clinton being at state or Bill Richardson at commerce or Joe Biden as his vice presidential pick. These people all know how Washington works. They've been through strong political fights in this town. In fact, many of them have been through difficult political campaigns. They are veterans of political fights in Washington.

This picks up on Obama's hallmark of his Cabinet picks so far. These are pragmatists. These are people with experience. It's not about ideology. So far, according to polls, the public has overwhelming approval for his choices in the Cabinet. We'll see how they feel about Rick Warren.

MONTAGNE: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

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