Rick Warren, the California pastor chosen by Barack Obama to pray at his presidential inauguration ceremony Jan. 20, is so influential a Christian leader and author that he has dramatically affected thousands of churches without ever stepping inside them.
Jim Miller, pastor of First Baptist Church in Metuchen, N.J., has seen the impact firsthand.
"I normally baptize 12 people a year, give or take," said Miller, whose church is one of 400 in New Jersey and tens of thousands nationwide to have participated in one of Warren's "40 Days of Purpose" workshop. "We have up and down years. Following that `40 Days of Purpose,' I had about 25."
The president-elect's selection of Warren — a social conservative seen as less partisan and more mainstream than the likes of James Dobson and Pat Robertson — was widely viewed as an effort to reach out to conservatives who opposed Obama in the election.
Yet it outraged a group of Obama's supporters: gay-rights advocates who complained that Warren's persistent opposition to same-sex marriage made him an inappropriate choice.
Days later, Obama tempered some of that outrage when he picked Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, to open a star-studded concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Jan. 18.
Warren's slot at the inaugural, however, is more prominent, and so is he.
With the runaway successes of his Purpose-Driven Life books and as founder of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., Warren is probably the most popular American Christian leader — "certainly the best-known exponent of evangelical Christianity of the megachurch variety," said William Martin, senior fellow for religious studies and public policy at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.
Warren shares some traits with the man known as the "pastor to presidents," Billy Graham, who participated in the inaugurations of every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, although poor health is expected to keep the 90-year-old Graham away this time around.
Like Graham, the most famous American evangelist of the 20th century, Warren has reached across political lines. Last year, he invited both Obama and GOP presidential nominee John McCain to his church for a public forum.
In his introduction, he said both were patriots.
"Warren takes some fairly firm positions that might work against universal cooperation, but he shares with Graham that he's not mean-spirited," Martin said, noting Warren's support for programs to help people with AIDS.
"He is a person of broad spirit and is capable of adjusting. (He has) said, `We're going to be concerned less with how people got this disease than with ministering to them as Jesus would.'"
Warren, like Graham, has drawn criticism over the years from conservative Christians for not being conservative enough. Sixteen years ago, a group of evangelical leaders complained about Graham's decision to accept Clinton's invitation to pray at his inauguration.
After Obama selected Bishop Robinson for the inaugural kickoff, Warren praised the choice, saying in a prepared statement that Obama "has demonstrated his genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of good will together in search of common ground. I applaud his desire to be the president of every citizen."
Gay critics of Warren's selection noted the pastor's recent comments to Beliefnet.com comparing same-sex relationships to ones involving incest, pedophilia and polygamy.
Harry Knox, director of the Religion and Faith program for the Human Rights Campaign, a leading gay civil rights group, said: "I certainly applaud the Reverend Warren for the difficult work he has done in bringing other evangelicals along on poverty issues and the environment and, to a certain degree, around HIV and AIDS. He is different than some of his colleagues on the Religious Right. But he doesn't deserve not to have close scrutiny.
"On the one hand he extends a hand of love, and then reaches out to slap with the other, where lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people are concerned."
Robinson, who had called Obama's selection of Warren a "slap in the face," offered a gentler assessment last week.
"Being a supporter of Barack Obama doesn't mean that we don't critique certain decisions that he might make," the bishop said on MSNBC. "And so many of us in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community were just stunned, really, by this choice. But I must say that in the intervening days, it appears that Barack Obama is being the person he told us he was, and that he intended to be, by including all voices in this inauguration, and indeed in his administration."
(EDITOR'S NOTE — Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)