After a month of controversy, Rick Warren’s performance Tuesday at the inauguration of President Barack Obama was like a good short story: in the end, it was both inevitable and surprising.
The first surprise was Warren’s evident awkwardness as he stepped up to the podium, as though his fast public rise over the past four years—meetings with Bono and Bill Gates, trips to Davos and Aspen—have transferred upon him none of the polish one expects from world leaders. Warren is quite genuinely a man who looks and feels more at home at his mega-church in sunny Southern California, wearing his Hawaiian shirts and preaching to a crowd drinking Starbucks. The inauguration of the 44th president was exactly the kind of frigid Eastern pageant Warren spent the early years of his career working against. (Churches, he said, should not be constrained by traditional songs and liturgy.) As a result, the pastor of Saddleback Church looked a little like a fish out of water as he began his invocation: tie askew, hair unkempt. This dissonance, of course, was the point. Warren is unlike Obama in almost every way. He is warm where the President is cool, garrulous where the President is a grammatical perfectionist, religiously conservative where Obama is progressive. As the proceedings unfolded on television, Obama’s reasons for choosing Warren could not have been more clear. Warren can strike an empathic, populist chord better than anyone else in America.