The Barack Obama-Rick Warren Fiasco
In case you are one of the few people (at least in the U.S.) who hasn’t heard, mega-church pastor Rick Warren will deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration of Barack Obama. It’s hard to tell who is angrier at the news: For weeks a bored U.S. media has tried to claim that liberals and progressives (especially “the liberal blogosphere”) are angry over Obama’s cabinet choices. The truth is that, while some of those choices have not made progressives happy (Gates as Sec. of Defense, Geithner as Treasury Secretary), the mood among liberals has not been one of anger, but of anxiety. Progressives are nervous that Obama’s movements for change could be far less progressive than he seemed to claim in his campaign and far less than we would like to see. But most of us are taking a wait and see attitude: He hasn’t even officially become president, yet. If his policies are even reasonably progressive and successful, we’ll be happy. And none of us expects to get everything we want–and we know that the Bush years cannot be cleaned up overnight. So, the media story of “angry liberals” is mostly fiction–until now.
Rick Warren, pastor of the huge mega-church, Saddleback Church, in Orange County, CA (and, nominally, at least, a Southern Baptist) has been a rising star of the Religious Right. In ’04, he campaigned vigorously against Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), saying that Christians should not care about the Iraq war (!). The only “values” for Christian voters should be opposition to legal abortion, opposition to gay rights, especially same-sex marriage, civil unions, domestic partnerships and other “marriage like arrangements,” (which Warren compared to incest, bestiality, and child molestation), support for low taxes (??), and support for home schooling. After the ’04 election, under his wife’s influence, Warren seemed to broaden his moral concerns to include preventing the spread of HIV/AIDS (Obama came to his church and spoke on this–with Warren receiving criticism for inviting a pro-choice politician to speak), the environment, racism, and stopping genocide in places like the Congo and, especially, Darfur (Warren wanted U.S. military intervention–though where we were to get the troops while stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, he never said!).
Because of his broadening agenda, people like my friend, ethicist Dave Gushee, began to list Warren as an “evangelical centrist,” rather than part of the evangelical right or left. But Warren continued to prioritize making abortion illegal (even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother) and opposition to equal rights for LGBT persons. He used his “Saddleback Forum” this past summer, asking both presidential candidates identical questions on live TV, in a way that–temporarily, at least–helped John McCain by biased phrasing designed to restart the culture wars and shore up the Religious Right’s support for McCain. (He also showed almost as little sensitivity as McCain to the plight of poor and working class people, suggesting that $250,000 annually did not make one rich!) That failed, but Saddleback and Warren were also major contributors to the successful campaign to pass California’s “Proposition 8” which rolled back the recent right to same-sex marriage in CA. GLBT folks lost everywhere on November 4, the night that Obama won, and have been struggling to not feel excluded ever since–especially when Obama, who in other ways is the most gay-friendly president, yet, publicly shares Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage (though not to civil unions or domestic partnerships).
So, the GLBT community (and allies like myself) are among those who are furious with Obama for inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration–despite the fact that the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, an African-American United Methodist minister who was one of the leaders of the civil rights movement, is a progressive icon, and long a champion of gay rights in both society and church, is giving the benediction. The aging Lowery is not as well known in recent years as Warren and many people tune out by the time of the benediction. If the two prayers were reversed, many pro-gay folk might be willing to applaud Obama’s inclusivism rather than feel slapped in the face by the prominence of Warren in the program.
Progressive faith leaders are also hacked off. Many of them risked much to help Obama get elected (I disapprove of campaigning by clergy for anyone!) or, at least, risked much in countering the many spurious smears of the Right toward Obama during the campaign. They see Warren as a “friendlier James Dobson” and feel very slighted.
But not all the criticism of this move comes from the Left. Pro-life groups are furious with Warren for ACCEPTING Obama’s invitation. They believe Warren, in broadening his moral agenda, has been too lukewarm in his pro-life work recently. “Pallin’ around with pro-abortionists” (as the governor of Alaska might phrase it) makes them furious. Many in the Religious Right see Obama’s election as a moral disaster and for one of their own to pray at the inauguration is infuriating–a reaction similar to the one Billy Graham received in January of ’93 for participating in the inauguration of Pres. Bill Clinton.
What to make of all this? Count me among those on the left who are angry at this choice–with some reservations. On the one hand, I love the way Obama reaches out to his adversaries. It is part of following Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. Throughout his public life, Obama has sought to engage those with whom he disagrees–and has pushed for progressives and Democrats to engage even conservative evangelicals, not glossing over differences, but seeking common ground. Bravo, Barack.
On the other hand, I understand those who say that Obama does better in reaching out to adversaries than to longtime friends and allies. In the wake of the Proposition 8 (and similar measures in other states) triumph of anti-gay forces, Obama needed a strong symbolic move that told GLBT folk and allies that he had not forgotten them and still planned on advancing much of their agenda (if not pushing for marriage equality). He has appointed one openly-gay cabinet member and it is widely believed that another, William White (a retired officer who is currently head of the Intrepid Museum), leads consideration for Secretary of the Navy. (Never believe these things until they are official, however. Like many environmentalists, I was thrilled in finding that Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) was the leading pick for Secretary of the Interior–and, then, yesterday it went to Sen. Salazar (D-CO), who HAS been an environmental lawyer and has done some strong green moves, but whose record is far more mixed than Grijalva’s!)
There were lots of ways to reach out to Rick Warren without inviting him to give the invocation. And Obama could have even selected another white evangelical equally opposed to same-sex marriage (but, like Obama himself, more liberal on other gay rights) who does not send the same “slap in the face” signal to GLBT folks that Warren does: e.g. Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, Richard Mouw, or recently-fired NAE publicly policy chief, Richard Cizik, who now supports civil unions and is reconsidering same sex marriage. Obama could have chosen David P. Gushee, who is very traditional on gay rights (but for whom this is not a major issue), but, who is the head of Evangelicals for Human Rights, a major part of the National Religious Coalition to Abolish Torture–which would send a very different signal than having Rick Warren deliver the invocation.
Like most progressives, I’ll get over this. Obama can hardly take back the invitation, now. If he quickly reverses “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” on gays serving openly in the military ( a move now supported by most military leaders), sends Congress legislation to abolish the federal “Defense of Marriage Act,” etc., he’ll have the warm support of most GLBT folks and their allies like me. But just as the victories for anti-gay legislation on November 4th introduced a sour note into the celebratory triumph of election night, the prominence of Rick Warren in the inauguration ceremonies dims the luster of a day that was supposed to usher in a new era of change.
I hope Obama learns how to continue to reach out to his adversaries, opponent, even enemies while, at the same time, doing better at not alienating friends and allies. Yes, I am glad that Obama wants to get beyond the petty politics of revenge–the Bush years held far too much of that! And, yes, I am glad that he has no plans to pander to the Left base of the Democratic Party the way that Bush (and the recent version of McCain) pandered to the Right base of the GOP. But I just wish that it didn’t feel like progressives taken for granted by the incoming administration. Say it isn’t so, Barack.
UPDATE: Well, now the United Nations has just created a global treaty decriminalizing homosexuality, BUT THE U. S. HAS REFUSED TO SIGN! This, despite the fact that our very conservative Supreme Court ruled in Lawrence v. Texas that all “sodomy laws” (mostly outlawing same-sex acts, though some of those laws applied to heterosexuals–and even married couples) were unconstitutional. So, Obama should act quickly to sign this in the new year. It will be his actions rather than his symbols that define his presidency–but I still think inviting Warren was a mistake.
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