Pastor Warren Sets Inclusive Tone at Inaugural

Evangelical Rick Warren sets 'common ground' tone to jumpstart Obama presidency.

ByABC News
January 19, 2009, 6:08 PM

Jan. 20, 2009 — -- Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor who faced criticism for his anti-gay views in the weeks leading up to the inauguration, today delivered an inclusive but deeply religious invocation that celebrated the first African-American president.

"Today we celebrate the hinge point of history with the inauguration of our first African-American president of the United States. We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequalled possibility where the son of an African immigrant can rise to highest level of our leadership," he said.

"And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven," said Warren, the Christian pastor who leads the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in California.

Speaking to a nation whose religious face increasingly reflects the map of the world, Warren said, "Help us, O God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race, or religion, or blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all."

He asked God to "forgive us...when we fight each other" and "when we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the earth with the respect that they deserve."

Watch live coverage of the Inauguration all day Tuesday beginning with "Good Morning America" at 7 a.m. ET and go to the Inauguration Guide for all of ABC News' coverage details.

Warren invoked the name of Jesus in prayer, despite comments from critics who had hoped the invocation would be more "inclusive" of Americans who are not Christian.

"He's a Christian pastor," Warren's spokesman Larry Ross told Fox News Monday. "He's going to pray the only kind of prayer he knows how to pray. He is going to pray consistent with his calling as an evangelical pastor."

"And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ," said Warren, perhaps referring to the ongoing disagreements about who should lead the nation in the symbolic moment of prayer.

He also urged Americans to "seek the common good for all" for a "more prosperous nation and peaceful planet."

"We now commit our new president and his wife, Michelle, and daughters Malia and Sasha into your loving care, in the name of one who changed my life … Jesus," he said, ending with the Lord's Prayer, the bedrock of Christian worship.

As president-elect, Barack Obama sought spiritual diversity when he chose Warren to lead the invocation and the liberal black Rev. Joseph Lowery to give the benediction.

Warren had been tight-lipped right up until he delivered the traditional kick-off prayer, refusing interviews with more than 100 media outlets, including

Warren, who angered critics with his socially conservative views on abortion and gay marriage, had urged his Orange County congregation to support California's Proposition 8 -- the successful campaign to ban same-sex marriage.

Protests over Obama's choice still resonated the day before the inauguration, as Warren gave the keynote address at Martin Luther King's birthday celebrations in Atlanta.

At that commemorative service, Warren again avoided controversy and borrowed a theme from the civil rights movement, "We Shall Overcome."

Over the weekend, about 100 gay rights supporters had marched and waved rainbow flags outside Warren's church in Lake Forest, Calif.

Problematic preachers like Warren have woven through the political life of Barack Obama, like a coat of many colors, all the way up to his inauguration as the 44th U.S. president.

First, firebrand Rev. Jeremiah Wright nearly derailed Obama's fight for the Democratic nomination. The uproar over his remarks from the pulpit such as "God damn America" and the U.S. being to blame for 9/11, prompted Obama to turn away from his former pastor and give a key speech on race and religion.

Then, the president-elect, who is a Christian, touched off a firestorm of controversy with Warren's selection.

As if to open the big tent even more, Obama picked V. Gene Robinson, the openly gay Anglican bishop from New Hampshire, to give the invocation at the start of inaugural events at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. Robinson had previously called Obama's choice of Warren a "slap in the face."

Gay rights advocates fumed over remarks Warren made to Beliefnet in December suggesting that if gay marriage were legal, why not incest, polygamy or "an older guy marrying a child?"

Conservative evangelicals were equally critical of Warren for accepting the inaugural invitation because of Obama's pro-choice abortion stance, just as they were when the president-elect joined a 2008 forum at Saddleback during the campaign.

But religious and even gay leaders are guardedly hopeful that this drama is yet another signal that Obama intends to rely on Lincoln's "team of rivals" approach to hear all points of view.

In the days before the inauguration, both preachers softened. When Robinson was named, Warren gushed to the New York Times that the president-elect had "again demonstrated his genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground."