I know that the Rick Warren prayer controversy has been the subject of way too much discussion, outrage and analysis, but I’m going to beat this not-dead-enough horse one more time, because there was a lesson here, and I’m not so sure that it’s the lesson many activists learned.
In the days following the announcement that Warren—along with the (pro-gay-rights) Reverend Joseph Lowery—would be delivering an inaugural prayer, I got multiple emails bemoaning Obama’s “treachery.” Several were really over the top; one in particular was an “open letter” to Obama, and said something along the lines of "I supported you but now I wish I’d voted for Hillary Clinton and I’ll never give you any more money, and I won’t help you get national health insurance either."
To which I wanted to say: Grow up, get a grip and give it a rest.
Do I understand where these partisans are coming from? Of course. But I found it difficult to get worked up—let alone as hysterical as many of the people blogging or emailing about it. Obama will be the president of the whole country, after all—including the fools and bigots and other people I don’t like and don’t agree with—and it is naïve to expect him to surround himself with only people approved of by gays and progressives. To me, what is much more important—and telling—is the caliber and political orientation of Obama’s appointments, and in my opinion, at least, those have been excellent.
So Rick Warren was invited to say a prayer at the Inauguration. That will make religious right people feel included. It won’t change public policy. What it may (or may not) change is the difficulty of making policy in our polarized country—making it marginally easier to achieve Obama’s (progressive) policy goals. Gestures of respect for other people’s right to hold opinions with which we disagree—which is not the same thing as respecting or agreeing with the opinions themselves—can only advance policy in those areas where we do agree. And despite most descriptions of Warren on gay and gay-friendly blogs, those areas exist.
Warren is probably the least objectionable of the right-wing nut clergy. He focuses primarily on ameliorating poverty and (ironically) curing AIDS, and conducts comparatively few campaigns to demonize “abortionists” and those of us working to advance the “gay agenda.” I certainly don’t agree with him, but I think reaction to the invitation was overwrought and ultimately unhelpful to the cause of gay rights. As I noted in a post on my American Values Alliance blog, politics isn’t softball, and politicians who actually want to get stuff done don’t do it by avoiding people deemed insufficiently pure.
Obama has reiterated his commitment to choice and gay rights. He has broken ground by appointing an out lesbian to a high-ranking White House energy post. It isn’t like he’s backing off these issues, or softening his positions. But critics insist that the symbolism is powerful–that by including Warren in this ceremony, he is "legitimizing" everything Warren stands for. Folks on the other side, however, are saying the same thing about Warren’s acceptance. As the Washington Monthly reported, “In an interesting twist, plenty of conservatives are mad, not at Obama for inviting Warren, but at Warren for accepting the invitation.”
David Brody, a correspondent for TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, reported being flooded with emails. “Most of them absolutely rip Pastor Warren for doing this."
Brody published a couple of them, and they sounded a lot like the ones I got—only with a different villain.
"Unless Rick Warren has changed, he is very disappointing in the pro-life cause. Just ask pro-life leaders their opinion. He doesn’t like to deal with it at his church. It just seems funny that he is known as ‘pro-life’ when he largely ignores the subject and teaches others to do the same. I fear God for these ‘men of God’ "
And this one:
"I have had about all I can stand of Rick Warren’s double standards. WHOSE side is he really on anyway? … This is a complete mockery of all things sacred."
Meanwhile, back in Bush country, the U.S. was the only major western nation to refuse to sign a UN declaration calling for worldwide decriminalization of homosexuality. Sixty-six of the U.N.’s 192 member countries signed the nonbinding declaration in an effort to push the General Assembly to deal with anti-gay discrimination. More than 70 U.N. members outlaw homosexuality, and in several of them homosexual acts can be punished by execution.
Delivery of a prayer—however “symbolic”—pales in comparison to the persistent, insistent and fully intentional homophobia of the late, unlamented Bush Administration.