I thought we’d begin this morning with Rachel Maddow’s scorching commentary about President-elect Barack Obama’s decision to ask the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation on Inauguration Day. It’s long, but some righteous anger is called for, as Obama — like so many politicians before him — has chosen to make gay and lesbian Americans the targets of his desire for political expedience.
Here’s part of what U.S. Rep. Barney Frank has to say:
Religious leaders obviously have every right to speak out in opposition to anti-discrimination measures, even in the degrading terms that Rev. Warren has used with regard to same-sex marriage. But that does not confer upon them the right to a place of honor in the inauguration ceremony of a president whose stated commitment to LGBT rights won him the strong support of the great majority of those who support that cause.
Obama shouldn’t have invited Warren. That said, there are some layers and complexities to this that are worth thinking about. In an open letter to Obama, the Human Rights Campaign asserts: “Rev. Warren cannot name a single theological issue that he and vehemently, anti-gay theologian James Dobson disagree on.” And, indeed, Warren was a leader in the fight to pass the loathsome Proposition 8 in California.
But to assert that Warren, therefore, is no different from Dobson is to overlook some inconvenient facts. Obama himself opposes same-sex marriage, though, to his credit, he also opposed Proposition 8. We can’t know what Obama is thinking beyond what he tells us. But I suspect his religious view of the world is rather more conservative than that of your typical secular liberal. In any case, I imagine that most of the very few evangelicals who voted for Obama hold Warren in higher esteem than Dobson, who isn’t just a hate-monger, but who’s genuinely weird.
What makes Warren interesting is that he may be on a journey of his own. (Or he may be talking out of both sides of his mouth. Or he may just be confused.) Earlier this week, Beliefnet.com posted an interview with Warren whose lowlights have gotten a lot of attention — that is, he compares same-sex marriage to pedophila and incest. Ugh.
Yet, at the beginning of the interview, when Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman asks Warren whether divorce or gay marriage “is a greater threat to the American family,” Warren calls the answer a “no-brainer” and says “divorce, no doubt about it.” And, as Waldman notes in the blog entry accompanying the interview, Warren appears to endorse civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, a stance for which a lesser-known evangelical leader just got cast out into wilderness.
But wait. As you’ll see, having seemed to stake out reasonably progressive ground, Warren backtracked (or clarified; take your pick), writing to Waldman that he meant no such thing:
I now see you asked about civil UNIONS -and I responded by talking about civil RIGHTS. Sorry. They are two different issues. No American should ever be discriminated against because of their beliefs. Period. But a civil union is not a civil right.
It gets worse.
Still, I’m reminded of something the late Molly Ivins once said about Ross Perot: “He’s the best right-wing populist billionaire we’ve got in Texas, so if you don’t like him, you’re out of luck.” Warren may be the best conservative evangelical minister we’ve got. So, on a certain level, it makes sense for Obama to have a relationship with Warren, who, as we’ve been told over and over, is fairly progressive on issues such as global warming, poverty and AIDS.
But you can see where this goes, can’t you? All I’m doing here is discussing the politics of it — that is, I’m taking the line that perhaps it makes sense for Obama to disappoint his gay and lesbian supporters and their allies momentarily in order to reach out to an evangelical leader, and perhaps even to push him to the center (or at least to less hurtful rhetoric) on cultural issues. Fine.
And, actually, no, it’s not fine. The problem is that it’s hard to make the case that Obama is taking a principled stand. The danger is that Obama’s outreach to Warren will be seen not as a wise move, but merely as a clever one. If Warren genuinely evolves over time, we may look back at this moment as an example of Obama’s wisdom.
If not, then it will only stand out as a moment that Obama outsmarted himself, and let down some of his most ardent supporters.