Rick Warren To Pray at Obama’s Inaugural? Was Otis Moss III Already Booked?

by James M. Wall                     moss-cropped1

When word came that Barack Obama had selected Rick Warren to give the opening prayer at his inauguration, you had to wonder, was Otis Moss III already booked?

Warren has been a leading warrior in the culture wars that have divided the nation. Reaction in opposition to Warren was swift and predictable. Many of Obama’s enthusiastic support base felt betrayed. Warren has every right to voice his opposition to the GLBT community and to speak out against choice. But that does not earn him the right to pray while the whole world watches on January 20.

Why did Obama choose a leading general in the culture wars when he could have selected someone with whom the Obama family already has a religious connection? Why not ask the Rev. Otis Moss III, Obama’s young, dynamic pastor at Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, the church where Barack and Michelle Obama were married and where their children were baptized.

Moss, who is African American, (and the son of the Rev. Otis Moss, Jr, a contemporary of Martin Luther King)  may or may not agree with Warren on the culture war issues. Many African American pastors and church members oppose choice and gay marriage. But Moss has not been a general in that war, firing off remarks highly offensive to the other side.

Which raises the obvious question: Who, in the name of all that is sacred, advises Obama on religious matters? It cannot possibly be anyone who knows American religion as well as his economic advisors know hedge funds and derivates. Obama’s secular advisors, on this matter at least, are tone deaf to American religious life.

And yes, Trinity United Church of Christ was for many years the home of the prophetic preacher, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. But Wright has retired. Otis Moss III was called to the Trinity pulpit in February, 2008.  Moss became pastor of the church at a difficult time, but as he demonstrated in a Chicago press conference,  he was up the assignment.  

Now is the time for healing. Bringing Otis Moss III to Washington on January 20 would have said, change is coming. This is our moment to transcend divisiveness. This is the time to transcend the culture wars, not bring them to the inaugural in the form of a prayer. This is a time for the nation to celebrate, not argue.

Moss should have been an easy choice. He is not only the Obamas’ pastor. He is also the pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation, a part of a denomination which by a recent count, has 1,330,985 members worldwide.  spread over more than 6000 local churches.

Numbers should never be the measure of religious influence, but in a nation that needs desperately to rebuild a sense of community, it is a matter of some significance that Trinity belongs to a denomination formed by the union of four different historic Protestant traditions, Congregational Churches, the Reformed Church in the United States, The Christian Churches, and the Evangelical Synod of North America.

With all due respect and admiration for what Rick Warren has accomplished, Brother Rick is not rooted in a denomination with worldwide connections. He is part of a new phenomenon in American religious life, the individual local mega church movement with congregations that rise and fall on the personalities of entrepreneurial leaders of the sprit.

It is no small accomplishment to start with an initial knock on the door of a new housing development on the way to building a congregation that now reaches 20,000 members. But why pick one success story pastor among the meta church phenomenon and ignore all the others?  Even one as innovative as Warren, who in 2005 rented a baseball stadium for a single service so he could preach to his entire congregation at one time. 

It is also impressive to write a book that sells zillions of copies to a religious market, a book whose author traveled below the radar screen of the nation’s opinion makers until he turned up hosting a nationally televised debate between two presidential candidates on the stage of his church. That successful author had the audacity to name his church, Saddleback, which sounds more like a California dude ranch than a place to worship, which probably helped in reaching the unchurched or the fallen away crowd.

Zero to 20,000 members, you have to admit, the guy is good. But does that qualify him to pray before the entire world at the inaugural? Do Obama’s advisors think the evangelical community has voted to make Rick Warren their new Billy Graham? No way.

So why will Warren, a successful spiritual entrepreneur, deliver that prayer? Was it because Diane Feinstein,  chair person of the Inaugural Committee, wanted Warren because he is from California? Surely, that could not be it, even if, as one blogger suggests, Feinstein wants to run for governor of California in 2010. There must be other reasons.

Maybe Obama wants to show he is able to say no to his base in the little symbolic moments like inaugural prayers. But saying no is not the way to govern a nation in need of healing. It is true that Obama chose the Rev. Joe Lowery to deliver the inaugural benediction, a good choice for many obvious reasons. Lowery is an icon in the civil right movement and deeply rooted in the African American community. His comments at Coretta Scott King’s funeral testify to his qualifications.

Sorry, Mr. President-elect, picking your own pastor, Otis Moss III, to deliver the inaugural prayer, should have been a slam dunk. You are going to have to come up with a superior inaugural address of your own to make up for this one. And please, in the meantime, get yourself some religious advisors who understand American religion as well as you understand American politics.

About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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10 Responses to Rick Warren To Pray at Obama’s Inaugural? Was Otis Moss III Already Booked?

  1. Toni Armstrong Jr. says:

    Needless to say, I am someone who worked hard to elect Obama and I now feel TOTALLY BETRAYED.

    So much for him delivering the “CHANGE” we all hoped for. The first time – FIRST TIME – he has a chance to do something symbolic, he deliberately chooses to pander to evangelicals and slap his LGBT base in the face.

    This former Hillary supporter is fuming. Whatever her faults, she never would have chosen someone like Warren to be prominent in her inauguration.

    Here’s what Joe Solmonese (HRC) said yesterday in a protest letter to Obama: “Your invitation to Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at your inauguration is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans. Our loss in California over the passage of Proposition 8, which stripped loving, committed same-sex couples of their given legal right to marry, is the greatest loss our community has faced in 40 years. And by inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Americans have a place at your table.”

    PFLAG has sent an official letter to of protest to Obama as well. Of course many more are on the way from organizations big and small.

    As thoughtful followers of politics (everyone who’s reading this blog) and big Obama supporters (some of you from the beginning)… I’m asking if you can you see any reason this choice is OTHER THAN a slap in the face – to progressives in general, as well as to gay people and those who support us? (Serious question.)

  2. Sue says:

    This situation makes me sad.

    Long story short: recently I became aware that a high school classmate was front and center in a controversy not of her own making a few years ago.Remember when Bush’s new Ed Secy put pressure on PBS not to air an episode of a children’s series Buster because it “featured” a same sex couple? (They weren’t featured, they were just going about their lives)

    My friend’s younger sister was one of the moms involved. Their children were looking forward to being on tv (there is way more to the story than this)

    I regret that when I talked to this woman I had an attitude that it was funny and a small world that I knew someone involved in that controversy. I knew I have nothing against GLBTs.

    She accepted a heartfelt apology I sent her for trivializing her situation because it happened yrs ago now. But I was really sorry when I thought about how non-funny it was, for her and her children.

    I realized that as a straight,white,married woman living in a progressive community I have never had anyone question how I lead my life.

    I am sorry that there is discussion of bringing people (Warren) together who disagree on issues. This is not a tax issue, a funding issue, a foreign policy issue. The “issue” shouldn’t be an ISSUE at all. It is American citizen’s personal, private lives.

    So count me as one white, straight woman who is sorry for all of us that Rick Warren was chosen.Mostly sorry for the GLBTs who have to fight for their rights and have their lives called into question.

    I can’t see how this will have been worth it.

  3. Ted Olsen says:

    Huh. I thought it was the First Amendment that gave Warren “the right to pray.”

  4. David Neff says:

    Rich Warren is and has long been affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. It is an American denominations, yes, but it has broad global connections.

  5. wallwritings says:

    David Neff:

    Thanks for the word that Rich Warren “is and has long been affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.” Who knew? Check Saddleback’s website. No reference to any “affiliation”. My point remains; Warren is a stand alone evangelical super star without deep roots in any American religious organized religion. Jim Wall

    Ted Olsen:

    Warren has “the right to pray” in his closet or any where else he desires to pray. However, his “right” to pray at the inaugural comes not from the First Amendment but from Barack Obama’s invitation. Jim Wall

  6. Andy Garcia says:

    Thanks for sharing.

    I think Obama is just courting all the different factions. There was also a pro gay pastor there as well. He is trying to appeal to different people and be a ‘jack of all trades’! 🙂

  7. Bob Cornwall says:


    I think you forget that Obama has long since broken ties with Trinity, and therefore Otis Moss isn’t his pastor.

  8. wallwritings says:

    I was aware that in the heat of the campaign the Obama family “withdrew” from Trinity UCC and that the family plans to find a new church, probably in Washington. What I wrote was that they had a
    “connection” to Trinity, which Obama acknowledged in his “withdrawal”. I am confident that Barack Obama did not seek to “break” with the congregation of Trinity UCC. He was stepping away from the circus the media had made of the sermons of Jeremiah Wright, who is no longer at the church. I can think of no more healing gesture to honor that connection than to ask Trinity’s current pastor to deliver a prayer at the inauguration.

    Reading further in my posting you will find these words: “Which raises the obvious question: Who, in the name of all that is sacred, advises Obama on religious matters? It cannot possibly be anyone who knows American religion as well as his economic advisors know hedge funds and derivates. Obama’s secular advisors, on this matter at least, are tone deaf to American religious life.” A pastoral connection is personal; a superstar evangelical pastor is political. Prayers should honor a personal relationship with God, and not be used to cultivate a segment of the voting public that voted overwhelmingly against Obama in the general election. That is not prayer. It is exploitation.

  9. Bill Faulkner says:

    This is my first comment on any blog. However, I disagree with your position. As you know, every U.S. President must try to serve all citizens. Obama has chosen Rick Warren to lead the nation in prayer, not to become the next Billy Graham. Yes, Warren wrongly offended GLBT folks, but he is human, and thus, not perfect. Can you (they) forgive Warren … and Obama? Evangelicals, whether Baptist or UCC, are a significant part of our population. Yes, Otis Moss III would have been an excellent choice, except that would have provoked a similar controversy among conservatives, would it not? Let’s not forget Moss’s proximity to one Jeremiah Wright, whom I happen to admire, and not just because of my UCC connections, though I am a progressive Catholic. I suspect that Warren will give an excellent prayer, and we will all live to see another day. Meanwhile, let’s all say our own inaugural prayer for our President-Elect. And if we don’t like whatever Warren says, we can simply interpret his words. Thank you, Jesus!

  10. Kim Murray says:

    A couple years after high school I stopped with much of the activism and took to just voting as my contribution. I am ashamed at how I have stepped away from myself and my people. It is plain to see that this is a fight we need to be in for life if we are to have a ‘life.’ I now live in Massachusetts with my partner and will be taking action. I can hear your words echoing in my ears. “Do what you say you are going to do when you say you will and be where you say you are going to be when you said you will be there.” These are such basic courtesies, one would think the President can handle it. Apparently he didn’t show up for the ‘Change’ for us as he said he would. So now if we want something done right we have to do it ourselves.

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