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Obama Defends Choice Of Warren

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. President-elect Barack Obama has asked Rick Warren, a conservative evangelical pastor, to deliver the opening prayer at the inauguration, and many gay activists are outraged. They say Warren is hostile to gay rights. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports on why Mr. Obama would make this controversial choice.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: Rick Warren is pastor of a megachurch called Saddleback and is famous for a blockbuster bestseller, "The Purpose-Driven Life." He's been called a new type of evangelical, more moderate with a broader agenda. But Mr. Obama's decision to give him such a prominent role at the inaugural is a bitter disappointment for some.

Mr. DAVID SMITH (Vice President, Human Rights Campaign): We are a constituency that worked very, very hard for his election, and we have been utterly and completely disrespected.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: David Smith is vice president of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights organization. He says Warren supported California's Proposition 8, which revoked the right to marry for gay couples. And, Smith says, Warren is on record saying that gay marriage is equivalent to marriage between siblings or polygamy. That, Smith says, shows that Warren's image as a moderate is a myth.

Mr. SMITH: So this is not somebody who sat on the sidelines of the cultural war. This is a general within the cultural war.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Now, the president-elect is on the opposite side from Warren when it comes to abortion and gay rights, but he admires Warren's activism on poverty and AIDS in Africa. Two years ago, when Mr. Obama was a young senator from Illinois, Warren invited him to a conference on AIDS at his church in California.

(Soundbite of conference)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: I want to say, first of all, how blessed I am to be here today, and how grateful I am to Saddleback and to Pastor Rick.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Warren was criticized by evangelicals for giving a stage to the liberal Democrat, a gesture that Mr. Obama noted in his news conference today.

(Soundbite of news conference)

President-elect OBAMA: Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak. And that dialogue, I think, is a part of what my campaign's been all about.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: The relationship between Mr. Obama and Pastor Warren began even earlier. David Domke, a professor at the University of Washington and author of "The God Strategy," says when Mr. Obama was writing his book "Audacity of Hope," he asked Warren to read his chapter on religion before it went to press.

Professor DAVID DOMKE (Communications, University of Washington; Author, "The God Strategy"): Warren responded and they had a good conversation, and that began a conversation about the fact that they disagreed on some things, but that they also had a lot of other things in common.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: He says the men have forged a friendship. And as Mr. Obama's presidential campaign gained momentum, Warren found himself at the center of politics. Warren invited Mr. Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, to talk about religion at his church in August. And it was under close questioning by Pastor Warren that the Democrat uttered one of his few gaffes, saying that deciding about when life begins was above his pay grade. As an evangelical, Warren represents a constituency that voted overwhelmingly against Mr. Obama. Steven Waldman, founder of Beliefnet, a religious Web site, says the president-elect is sending a message that he's not beholden to the left or the right.

Mr. STEVEN WALDMAN (Founder, Beliefnet): It's a statement that he's trying to having a kind of spiritual bipartisanship by having someone of tremendous stature like Rick Warren, but who clearly is politically different.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Waldman says Warren has to step away from the culture wars if he wants to be the next Billy Graham. David Domke agrees, adding that both men have a lot to gain from their relationship.

Professor DOMKE: And I think they also believe that each of them provides a steppingstone to important constituencies, and they both have, you know, desires to talk to those people.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: No one believes the president-elect will withdraw the invitation. And so far, there's no controversy about the minister who is giving the benediction, civil rights leader Reverend Joseph Lowery. Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.