The Pastor Warren Gambit

I am one of many people who have been puzzling over Barack Obama’s peculiar inaugural invitation to Pastor Rick Warren. Just in case you have been living in a cave these last few weeks, Warren is a jet-setting pastor of the evangelical Saddleback (California) Community Church (a mega-church) and the best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life. He befriended Barack Obama a couple years back. Obama even spoke to his congregation. Warren also happens to be against homosexual marriage. Obama has at times sounded both pro gay-marriage and anti-gay marriage. However, he clearly is for civil unions, which he sees as the legal equivalent of marriage, and is opposed to all discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The gay and lesbian community is outraged over Obama’s invitation to Warren to say a prayer at his inauguration. They were among his staunchest supporters during his campaign and feel his invitation was a slap in their faces. After all, Rick Warren had equated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. I am not gay and I sure found those words offensive when I read them. Yet, realistically his words were no more offensive than a lot of other tripe coming out of the conservative Christian community. As I pointed out in this recent post, polygamy is also Biblically sanctioned but I do not hear Pastor Warren sanctioning that.

As I expected, Rick Warren has quickly toned down the rhetoric. Today he asserted that he is not anti-gay, just anti-gay marriage. He has also said he regretted his choice of words when he associated gay marriage with incest and pedophilia. His church also removed wording from its website that said gays were welcomed as members only if they first repented for their homosexual lifestyles. It is unclear though whether homosexuals can now become members of the church.

Warren also recently shared the stage with songwriter Melissa Etheridge, a rather public lesbian and who is legally married in the State of California to her lesbian spouse. How much longer her marriage will be legal is an open question, given that people like Warren worked tirelessly to ensure the proposition’s passage. Sharing a stage though gave Etheridge and Warren a reason to talk about their differences on these sensitive issues. Etheridge for one is willing to cut Warren some slack on his past remarks.

I can understand why most in the homosexual and lesbian community would be irate with this invitation. If I had been discriminated and scorned much of my life for my natural sexual preferences and my perfectly understandable desire to have my marital state sanctioned by society, I would be hollering too. Why would our president elect do such a thing?

In the interest of balance, Pastor Warren is not be the only minister Obama asked to speak at the inauguration. Joseph Lowery, a founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, accepted an invitation to give the benediction. Lowery’s views are far more inclusive than Warren’s. Obama himself said, “It is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” To gays and lesbians in particular, their rights are more than mere “social issues”.

Obama must have known that by inviting Warren he would raise a ruckus. What is Obama really up to with his invitation? Is he trying to win the respect of those who did not vote for him, and thereby increase his chances of rallying the country on painful changes that will be hard to swallow? Is he telegraphing that his support for gays and lesbians was half-hearted and his appeals to this community duplicitous? Is he making a statement that in the grand scheme of all the severe problems facing this country that gay and lesbian rights are not that important?

While I cannot read his mind, I think I understand Obama’s strategy. Those who are most virulently against extending full civil rights (including marital rights) to gays and lesbians are, in my observation, those who spend the least amount of time interacting with them. Sure, they are among us but unlike skin color, which you cannot hide in ordinary life, it is easy to hide your sexual preferences.

If we are to end the polarization on this issue, those who are opposed to gay and lesbian rights must spend time in civil dialog with openly gay and lesbian people. It is especially important for prominent people on both sides to have civil dialog. By talking to Melissa Etheridge before their appearance at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, as well as sharing a stage with her, Warren had the opportunity to have his beliefs challenged in person and in a way that did not make him defensive. It turns out that Warren is also a big Melissa Etheridge fan, which doubtless helped Etheridge get her views across. While I am sure she is not the first overtly gay or lesbian person he has met, repeated encounters help people like Warren understand that gays and lesbians are not freaks or a special class of sinner but completely ordinary people.

The full enfranchisement that gays and lesbians seek will not occur through noisy in your face confrontations. Such confrontations may feel good, but their effects are likely to be counterproductive and inflame passions on both sides. Such actions are also likely to retard the progress that gays and lesbians seek. Barack Obama is forcing a dance between these two social forces in a way that promotes genuine dialog rather than hate and vindictiveness.

An enemy ceases to be your enemy once you can relate to them. It is through dialog that conservative Christians and others opposed to homosexual rights will eventually be won over. There are far more vitriolic ministers on this issue than Pastor Warren. Warren though exhibits a certain amount of common sense and reasonableness. It is through changing influential minds like his that much larger groups are persuaded. Obama’s timing may be inflammatory, but I think his judgment with this invitation will be proven sound.

Social change is always painful, so this invitation is bound to be painful to many who fight valiantly for full civil rights for gay and lesbian Americans. However, it may turn out to be a significant step toward achieving the full enfranchisement that gay and lesbian Americans seek. If America can break the color divide by electing an African American president, can healing the divide between gay and homophobes really be that far away?

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