Once upon a time, presidents tended to choose their own pastors, or reasonable facsimiles thereof, to give the invocation at their inaugurations. The idea was: Here’s the guy who presides over my religious life, the guy I go to for spiritual counsel, and so I’m going to honor him by letting him say the prayer over this latest ceremonial occasion of my life. Thus, John F. Kennedy gave the nod to Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing in 1961 and, in 1981, Ronald Reagan tapped Bel Air Presbyterian pastor Donn Moomaw. From time to time, the invoking cleric would be chosen for symbolic reasons, as when Dwight Eisenhower selected Orthodox Archbishop Michael in 1957 and Reagan, in 1985, chose the president of Georgetown University, Father Joseph A. O’Hare S.J. [Correction: make that Timothy S. Healy S.J.]
But over the past two decades, it appears that a new office has emerged–that of Pastor to the President. This emergence is a bit obscured by the fact that the only actual holder of that office has been Billy Graham. Graham gave the invocations at the inauguration of George H.W. Bush and both Clinton inaugurals, and was slated to do the same at George W. Bush’s 2001 affair, but because of illness had to cede the job to his son Franklin. It is, I think, in this context that Barack Obama’s choice of Rick Warren needs to be seen. As has been widely noted, Warren bids fair to become the closest thing to Billy Graham that the country has today. At the moment, he’s way more controversial than the now sainted Graham, but in his younger days, Billy was plenty controversial himself.
What’s important to recognize is that the position of presidential pastor is not entirely bogus. It entails spiritual counseling, advice and friendship, pastoral care. Graham actually seems to have filled that role for Richard Nixon, which helps explain why Nixon tapped him for his first inaugural invocation. The Clintons are both attached to him; according to Burns Strider, who handled faith outreach for the Hillary Clinton campaign, whenever Hillary was slated to make an appearance in North Carolina, she insisted on paying a call on the old man. And of course, George W. Bush has made central to his faith journey that walk on the beach with Billy. Even if that particular event is, strictly speaking, apocryphal, the personal connection seems real.
Rick Warren is of course the head of the Saddleback world, the crusader for AIDS, the best-selling author of popular religious books. But he also, from what I gather, has taken it upon himself to serve as spiritual counselor to the politically prominent. There is every indication that Obama has availed himself of his services. Amidst all the huffing and puffing about Warren’s choice to give next month’s invocation, hardly raised at all is the possibility that this was, for Obama, as much a personal as a political decision. His family is, famously, between churches, and his relationship with Jeremiah Wright can hardly be what it once was. Warren seems to have given the president-elect good reason to like him and value his advice; the two call each other friend. We may think whatever we want of either, but this may be more about them than us.
Update: In support of this view of Warren, here’s an exchange with Steve Waldman from a recent interview:
Did you ever talk to President Bush to try to convince him to change his policy?
Never got the chance. I just didn’t. In fact, in the first place, I’m a pastor, and people might misunderstand – I don’t deal with policy issues with Barack Obama or President Clinton or John McCain. I just don’t. That’s not my role. My role is to pastor these guys. As a leader I understand stress.
And even when I disagree with positions they hold, they’ve got plenty of political advisors. They don’t need me to be a political advisor. I’m not a pundit. I’m not a politician and that’s why I don’t take sides. But I am a pastor. And I can deal with “how’s your family doing? How’s your stress level doing?”