Inaugural Pastor: The Two Faces of Rick Warren

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Richard Vogel / AP

Barack Obama with Pastor Rick Warren

Rick Warren has spent his entire career building a reputation as an Evangelical who doesn't cause the kind of outrage and protests that have greeted his selection to deliver the invocation at Barack Obama's Inauguration. Warren wasn't a polemicist like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson; he was the one who talked about a loving Jesus, who promised that God had a purpose for your life. "Pastor Rick" took on progressive causes like third-world poverty and sex trafficking, and implored Evangelicals to care about HIV/AIDS. Both Obama and John McCain were comfortable enough with Warren that they agreed to join him for a presidential forum at his Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif.

But there has always been the other Rick Warren, who sounds for all the world like the new leader of the Religious Right. The one who proclaimed a week before the 2004 election that the five "non-negotiable issues" for Christian voters were abortion, gay marriage, human cloning, euthanasia and stem-cell research. The one who bragged about taking Obama and other Democrats to task over abortion but said he "didn't have the opportunity" to ever talk with George W. Bush about his opposition to torture. (See TIME's cover story "The Global Ambition of Rick Warren.")

In short, Warren wants to be both the universally admired pastor who speaks to the nation and the influential leader who mobilizes religious conservatives for political ends. But those are two inherently conflicting roles, and he cannot be both, no matter how hard he tries.

Warren would say there is no tension between his goals, that he never pretended to be anything other than a conservative. It's not his fault, after all, if people forget that he is a theologically conservative Southern Baptist whose concern about issues like abortion and gay marriage has not been displaced by a recent focus on certain progressive causes.

But Warren himself encourages the confusion about his politics and agenda. When the Saddleback presidential forum was announced in July 2008, the pastor seemed eager to emphasize that he was not an old-school Evangelical leader obsessed with social issues. "There is no Christian religious test," he told TIME in the days before the event, vowing that questions would center on four areas: poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate change and human rights. On the night of the forum, however, Warren hewed closely to a conservative script, asking the candidates about gay marriage, judges and abortion, and only briefly touching on poverty and climate change.

The next day at Saddleback's Sunday services, Warren tried to reclaim his postpartisan reputation, telling his congregants that he would not endorse a presidential candidate nor tell anyone whom he was going to vote for. But that same day, he gave an interview to Naomi Schaeffer Riley of the Wall Street Journal that left very few questions about his leanings. The Democratic Party's new platform calling for a reduction in the abortion rate was, he said, "window dressing" and "too little, too late." When Riley asked Warren about some of Obama's Evangelical supporters, he dismissed the significance of Evangelical liberals.

Many critics who are outraged by Warren's role in the Inauguration have unfairly painted him as a leader in last fall's campaign for Proposition 8, the controversial California ballot initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage. It's not as if Warren cut commercials for Prop. 8 or traveled the state urging its passage. But neither was he the silent bystander that some of his defenders have claimed. Less than a month before the election, Warren e-mailed a statement to his 30,000 members declaring, "There is no doubt where we should stand on this issue," and urged them to "vote yes on Proposition 8 — to preserve the biblical definition of marriage."

After the election, Warren sowed more confusion about his support for Prop. 8. First he compared homosexuality to incest, pedophilia and polygamy, and then he tried to walk back from those comments by insisting that the real reason he backed the initiative was to protect the free-speech rights of pastors to decry homosexuality. It was an argument made by some other Prop. 8 proponents during the campaign, but it is a phony one.

Many believe the Obama campaign was naive about Warren's political agenda heading into the Saddleback forum. "They hadn't done their research on Warren," says one progressive religious figure. "Obama wasn't prepared for the Saddleback thing at all, and Warren bushwhacked him." Likewise, Obama's senior staff was not aware of Warren's most recent controversial comments — including his comparison of homosexuality to incest and his belief that the President of Iran should be assassinated — when they signed off on his selection for the Inauguration.

When Obama asked Warren to take part in the Inauguration, he thought he would get Pastor Rick. And on Tuesday Warren will undoubtedly deliver a blandly optimistic — if explicitly Christian — prayer of the sort that has made him popular with the tens of millions of Americans who have purchased his books. But the uproar that has accompanied his selection suggests that Obama would do well to get to know the other Rick Warren, particularly if his Administration intends to continue an ongoing relationship with the pastor.

Read Barack Obama's and John McCain's essays on faith.