President-elect Barack Obama, as many of you no doubt know by today, chose the popular evangelical minister Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his January 20 inauguration, strongly rejecting the criticism that it slights gays. Gay rights advocates were strong supporters of Obama during the election campaign, even though he did not endorse “gay marriage” in his promises or commitments. What angers these gay rights advocates about Rick Warren is his backing of Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative banning gay marriage. That measure was approved by the voters last month, millions of whom also voted for Barack Obama. This was especially the case among black and Hispanic voters who voted heavily against gay marriage and generally do elsewhere.
Anyone who has bothered to study the words and actions of Barack Obama should not be surprised at his choice of Rick Warren, as well as noted Civil Rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery, to pray at his inauguration. Obama’s record has been one of seeking to draw people together, not to divide them into more partisan debates where it harms the well-being of the nation. Thus Obama told reporters in Chicago that America needs to "come together," even when there's disagreement on social issues. "That dialogue is part of what my campaign is [was] all about.”
I have been reading David Mendell’s excellent biography of Barack Obama, Obama: From Promise to Power (New York: Harper Collins, 2007), this week. This decision about Rick Warren is, I assure you, consistent with the leadership style and makeup of the man Barack Obama. People on the left and right had better expect to see him lead in this way because this is who and what he is and it is what he has been for well more than twenty years. His record as the editor of the Harvard Law Review underscores a remarkable ability to support progressive political views while he also genuinely reached across the aisle to conservatives. He seeks to honor and respect all people, even if he disagrees with their philosophy. He did the same in the Illinois Senate and former foes have confirmed this to me personally.
Rick Warren, who has become for many the “public face” of a better and wiser evangelicalism, is clearly the leader of a new breed of evangelicals who stress the need for action on social issues such as reducing poverty and protecting the environment, alongside traditional theological themes. If Warren is a “hate-monger” then the stance of this alliance of gays reveals, sadly, who is spreading the hate in the wider culture. Warren does strongly oppose gay marriage but when is such opposition equivalent to “hate speech.” If this definition of hate spreads we are all in deep trouble. Obama understands this and will very likely not fall for it at all.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest gay rights organization, said Warren's opposition to gay marriage is a sign of his intolerance. "We feel a deep level of disrespect when one of the architects and promoters of an anti-gay agenda is given the prominence and the pulpit of your historic nomination," the group said in a letter to Obama, asking him to reconsider his choice. But is Warren really “an architect and promoter of an anti-gay agenda?” No way. He is an orthodox Christian who believes that marriage is for one man and one woman. The simple truth is that this protest will actually harm the Human Rights Campaign by showing its intolerance of people that it considers intolerant, namely all Christians who do not support their goal for gay marriage.
Barack Obama desires to be the president of all the people and will, I believe, lead us away from this kind of speech and posturing, at least as the president. He will take positions that many of us will disagree with but this is true for any political leader. At the same time I think he will genuinely work to change the tone of the nation’s speech and debate, a goal I support profoundly.
These same gay advocates further attacked Obama by writing: "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." Obama noted in his response that a couple of years ago, he was invited to speak at Warren's church, despite their open disagreement on a number of issues. The president-elect said a "wide range of viewpoints" will be presented during the inaugural ceremonies and his actions prove this.
This issue here is relatively small, at least in the bigger picture of things, but in some ways it is a little window through which we can see and understand better how Barack Obama will attempt to lead and influence the nation.