The Problem With Rev. Rick Warren—It Isn’t the Rick, It’s the Rev.

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Rick Warren is the conservative mega-preacher from Southern California who’s giving the invocation at Barack Obama’s swearing-in on January 20.

Lots of people have been criticizing Obama’s choice. They accurately note that Warren is rabidly anti-gay, anti-condom, anti-sex education, anti-reproductive choice. He brags about his supposedly great work battling AIDS in Africa, but it turns out that Warren’s ideological commitments to abstinence and against condoms have actively undermined public health in Africa.

He’s a dangerous, deluded, man full of hate and fear.

Obama could have chosen a different religious figure, someone whose beliefs more closely match those who elected him.

But if Warren’s beliefs mesh with the ideas of the other half of Americans, why should we keep him off the stage because of those beliefs?

We shouldn’t.

We should keep him off the stage because he’s a reverend.

Criticizing Obama’s choice of Rick Warren because of Warren’s politics has some limited value. But calling Warren the wrong pastor legitimizes the idea that a pastor belongs on stage in the first place. One doesn’t. There is no right pastor to speak at the most important ceremony of a pluralistic, secular democracy—the transfer of power. (A second preacher—far more liberal and less hate-filled will close the swearing-in. He’s exactly as inappropriate up there as Warren.)

The tradition—that is, the public relations demand—of a clergyman on that stage is wrong. If Obama, in his heart, is making a pledge to his god, fine—it’s a free country. But having a pastor give an “invocation” (definition: a prayer) is government sponsorship of religion. The problem isn’t that it’s the wrong religion or an intolerant religion or a misunderstood religion. The problem is that it’s state-sponsored religion.

If you doubt that a pastor speaking at a Presidential swearing-in is an endorsement of religion, do a simple thought experiment: what if a rabbi or imam were giving the invocation? There would be rioting in the streets. Why? Because members of America’s majority religion would be complaining that the rabbi or imam “doesn’t represent my values.”

Precisely. There shouldn’t be anyone up there “representing” anyone’s “values,” other than the Constitutional values that got us here: Pluralism. Democracy. Freedom of thought and belief. When you want your religious values represented, go to your church—which, by the way, I am forced to support financially with federal tax exemptions.

So Rev. Warren, stay off the stage of my glorious secular country. If Obama wants you to hold his hand before he’s sworn in, do it. If Obama wants your blessing on his head while driving to the party afterwards, give it.

But if you’re on stage at the Inauguration, keep your mouth shut. Not because I hate your religious ideas. Because I love my secular country.

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