A few of you probably read last night that Barack and McCain have agreed to appear together at Rick Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County on August 16. I would guess that some of you are suspicious, but I would have to add that here once again the Senator from Illinois seems to know what he's doing.
If you don't know who Rick Warren is...
...Warren is a friend of both men. He's also a friend of Jack Welch and Rupert Murdoch, and lots of other white male power brokers. This New Yorker backgrounder from a couple of years ago on Warren, who has taken of late to sounding more politically neutral than most evangelical pastors, has more than a few informative moments in it.
The article notes Warren's most notable key to success in forming small groups in Orange County---where they may be easier to form than you might suppose (long commutes, dull suburbs, consumer culture, plastic lifestyles make for alienation, for a thirst for community, which mainline religion does not easily fulfill). It's the kind of organizing that progressives don't do well precisely because their lives are typically more creative, more cosmopolitan, more interesting.
The tv show The OC gives lip service to a plastic kind of life in the OC. But how plastic can life be in Orange County? Warren's Saddleback Church is in a town called Lake Forest, incorporated in 1991, which is nowhere near either a real lake or a real forest. But also note evolution: the City, a white-flight bastion, elected Orange County's first African-American mayor ever.
And this is the kind of tension that suburban American itself, as far as I can see, is experiencing: a generation or even two generations removed from white flight from the cities, some of the descendants of the bluehairs are questioning the dominant paradigms---this is also the County, after all, that brought us Bob Dornan and Wally George, people who grew on suburban America in the Reagan/Bush I years. But this is a County which, like suburban America, now includes the descendants of Vietnamese boat people, Mexican day laborers, and plenty of gender issues.
In this context, Warren is like a second-wave suburban preacher. Though Warren professes not to write well, his books have sold tens of millions, and he sells his sermons to anyone who wants them on the Internet.
A lot of you have read about the way Orange County, long California's conservative bastion, has made steps towards engaging progressive politics in the wake of the Bush administration failures. I mostly see Warren as more weathervane than wind; his activism with the dispossessed, with AIDS in Africa, has come long after he should have known better, and it comes precisely parallel to the political windshift in the OC. But some of that may simply be my cynicism about the state of spiritual fitness in OC in general. Twenty years ago, the evangelical movement really took hold there, with churches like Calvary Chapel, as empty suburban lives inadequately fed from "our parents" churches cherry-picked from Catholic and mainline Protestant faiths, usually coming down on the side of Reaganomics and white flight. Things have changed a little as the movement is now well into its next generation; churches have been obliged to accommodate more inclusion of other kinds of identities, even as America has.
If you click to the NYT article, Warren promises to lob softballs to both candidates.
Through the whole W presidency, I've mostly thought of America's key split as not being Demo-GOP or progressive/conservative, but really urban v. suburban: snippy, sanctimonious, narrow, closed-minded, hectoring churchgoing parents in the 'burbs; disdainful, artistic, creative, open-minded full-flush-of-youth in the cities; these may not be the dominant statistical groups, but they are the activists: they are the worker-bees of contemporary politics. Orange County is a kind of suburban paragon, a white-flight exemplar where life is mostly simulated rather than directly experienced. But even the 'burbs can evolve over time---think of how dated that not-even-a-decade-old best picture about suburban life, American Beauty, is by now.
FYI/fine print/full disclosure: a small part of the foregoing was taken from a short post at my LA-based blog street-hassle.