Three Strikes (Strike Two: Pastor Rick)
Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his Inauguration has produced anger and/or hurt feelings in many liberal and/or gay precincts. It’s hard to say this without sounding condescending, but I understand these feelings and sympathize with them.
Warren turns out to be somewhat worse than I thought he was back when, a few months ago, I rashly likened him to Henry Ward Beecher. I hadn’t fully appreciated that he contends Jews and atheists are automatically hellbound, for example. Or that he has declared assassination admissible when used against “evildoers,” such as the president of Iran. Or that, while he says gays are welcome to attend services at his Saddleback megachurch, he doesn’t let them (closet cases excepted, presumably) become members. (He doesn’t let heterosexuals who are living together in “sin” join, either.)
Nevertheless, the invitation to Warren looks to me like another of Obama’s brilliant chess moves.[emphasis mine; this is the part I agree with]
Warren, first of all, is much, much less of a jerk than, say, Pat Robertson or James Dodson. He is polite and civil to people who are polite and civil to him, even people who (like Obama) disagree with him on subjects like whether or not abortion and same-sex marriage should be illegal. He recognizes that global warming, environmental degradation, gross economic inequality, and poverty are actual problems, not just excuses for godless liberals to impose big government programs. He does not go on television to fleece the faithful with “prayer requests.”
The President-elect is doing what he has said he would do from the beginning: he is reaching across lines of identity and ideology. Remember those wonderful lines from the 2004 keynote? “We worship an awesome God in the blue states… and, yes, we have some gay friends in the red states.” (I don’t worship any gods, whether awesome or lame, but when Obama said this I didn’t feel in the least slighted.) In the case of the Warren invitation, the reaching across is neither more nor less than an expression of inclusion and respect in the context of a ritual of the American civic religion. It is not an offer to surrender or compromise some principle. It is not a preemptive concession in some arcane negotiation. If anything, it suggests that when and if he does negotiate with the Christianist right, he will negotiate from strength, not weakness.
The Warren invitation should make it politically easier for Obama to change federal policies in an equal-rights direction where gays and lesbians are concerned, much as retaining Robert Gates at the Pentagon will make it politically easier for him to manage a withdrawal from Iraq. What the Warren invitation does is to show evangelicals that when (and if, but let’s hope there won’t be any ifs) Obama scraps “don’t ask, don’t tell,” starts providing federal support for contraception, and undoes the international “gag rule” on abortion counseling, he’s doing these things out of his sense of the general good, not lobbing ordnance in a culture war.
Warren supported Proposition 8, the California anti-same-sex-marriage initiative. Worse, he likens same-sex marriage to marriage between siblings, marriage between an adult and a child, and polygamy. But, according to beliefnet.com, he also says that he regards divorce as a much bigger threat than gay marriage—“a no-brainer,” he says. Also, he appears to be open to, maybe even supportive of, civil unions—something that Obama, and organized gaydom, ought to put to the test.
Warren has said that he has lots of gay friends. That’s easy to make fun of, but it’s not meaningless. In Gus Van Sant’s terrific film “Milk,” Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk helps defeat a 1978 anti-gay California proposition by rallying large numbers of gays to come out of the closet and make themselves known to friends, family, and co-workers. People who have gay friends have a hard time hating gay people. Eventually they have a hard time hating gayness itself.
Although Obama did a little better among evangelicals than did the last couple of Democratic nominees, the organized evangelical movement is never going to support him. But either it can oppose him passionately, contemptuously, and across the board, or it can oppose him respectfully, selectively, and without zeal, cooperating with him in some areas. Obama’s Warren gesture should nudge some non-negligible number of evangelicals in the second direction. It might even help cool their social-issue fervor.
I’m especially inclined to see this as a real possibility after my very interesting and enjoyable recent visit to Covenant College, in Lookout Mountain, Georgia, just across the Tennessee border from Chattanooga. Covenant is no Bob Jones University—dancing is permitted, the dress code is relaxed, and check out the school Drama Association’s latest production!—but it is a stronghold of evangelical Christianity. (Motto: “In All Things Christ Pre-Eminent”.) Judging from a show of hands I asked for, the people who came to my talk all pretty much unanimously believe in a personal God who has opinions about which human sexual practices are naughty, and which are nice. Be that as it may, I liked them all—students, faculty, and the college president, Niel Nielson—very much. They were polite, serious, gracious, and un-self-righteous. I don’t know how typical the students I talked with were, but they were eager to discuss every question from “Is there a God?” to “At what point does the moral value of a human fetus exceed that of a live chimpanzee?” I got the impression that many of them are embarrassed by the likes of Dobson, Robertson, and Sarah Palin, and have no wish to be lumped in with them. Several volunteered to me that they had voted for Obama. Many more seemed fascinated by him and glad that he views them as citizens of the same country that he is going to be President of. When we discussed gay issues, it seemed clear to me that they were earnestly struggling with the contradiction between, on the one hand, the Bible’s supposed anti-gay fulminations and, on the other hand, their own increasingly inescapable knowledge that (a) being gay is not a “lifestyle choice” and (b) there is no danger of gays “recruiting” straights, let alone recruiting so many that the human race dwindles into nonexistence.
These students live in a bubble, and they know it. But then, people like me live in a bubble, too, and, on the whole, we don’t know it. From my angle, of course, our bubble looks bigger and better. Theirs: a constricted, six-thousand-year-old world ruled by an incorrigibly small-minded God, the secrets of which are to be found in a black-bound anthology of unreliably translated old tribal stories, poems, directives, and tracts. Ours: an unimaginably immense, unimaginably ancient universe ruled by no one, the wonders and beauties of which are continually being revealed to us through our senses and our minds. The more frank and friendly conversation there is between the two bubbles, the better. (Don’t take my word for it— take Melissa Etheridge’s.)
Being the opening act at Obama’s Inauguration will give Warren a boost within the evangelical world, at the expense of the real baddies (or the real worsies). It will have a calming effect on evangelicals. The rest of us—liberals, gays, secularists, unorthodox Jews, non-Christianist Christians—ought to stay calm, too. We can settle for the rest of the ceremony, including Obama’s address and Joseph Lowery’s benediction. To say nothing of the substantive changes the Obama Administration will bring.
Hertzberg On Obama/Warren
Rick Hertzberg is a favorite of mine. I almost always agree with him (being a liberal atheist and all), and I have posted many pieces by Rick here on TFT. I post this one because, even though I agree with it, I disagree. "Pastor"(scare quotes!)Warren should not have been invited.