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December 22nd, 2008

PURE GOLD: HOW MUCH ROOM SHOULD THERE BE IN OBAMA’S BIG TENT?

by Ed Gold


Rick Warren: Better than the average pro-life, creationist, homophobic Evangelist.

There are a substantial number of reasons why liberals as well as the entire LGBT community might be upset by the selection of Evangelist Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at Barack Obama’s Inaugural.

But those of us who cheered Obama’s victory had better get used to his nuanced concept of diversity, even when it proves exasperating at times.

Let’s not fudge the issue. Warren, who runs the fourth largest church in the nation, goes against the liberal grain in many ways:

*He of course opposes abortion, arguing that life begins at conception and that ending that life is unacceptable.

*He has compared gay marriage to incest and polygamy (although he has recently modified that comparison) and sees gayness as unnatural and not a human right.

*He favors creationism over evolution.

*He puts great limits on stem cell research.

So how could Obama give such a person a featured symbolic spot at his inauguration?

Linda Douglas, speaking for Obama, says the selection has nothing to do with politics, which means it has everything to do with politics as Obama sees it. It fits in with his long-term view of political change in America.

Critics should realize that Obama does not share any of Warren’s views listed above. He does, however, see Warren as different from other well-known Evangelists of the Falwell, Robertson, Dobson and Bauer stripe. (Bauer, by the way, thinks Warren hurts the Evangelical cause by participating in the Inaugural.)

Obama is impressed with Warren’s goal of restoring “civility in our civil discourse.” Included in the Obama sermon during the campaign was the concept of America as a large tent filled with people of diverse views, varying colors and ethnicities, as well as differing sextual orientations.

While recognizing the “un-negotiable” religious issues Warren espouses, he also finds hopeful signs in other aspects of Warren’s program.

Warren, for instance, argues that divorce is a greater threat to family values than homosexuality. He also suggests that Evangelicals have spent too much time on wedge issues like homosexuality and abortion when Christian calling demands action on reducing world poverty, fighting diseases including HIV/AIDS, expanding educational opportunities and facing up to the threat of global warming. On many of these issues, Obama finds common ground with Warren.

Obama also must be impressed by Warren’s stature as an opinion-maker on many world issues; he’s spoken before prestigious groups like the the UN, the African Union, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and the Council on Foreign Relations, to name a few.

It may be hard to swallow, but the nation’s three national news magazines all have given Warren star status. Time Magazine in 2004 put him in “the top 15 world leaders who mattered most.” Newsweek in 2005 named him as “one of the 15 people who make America great,” and U.S. News & World Report that same year rated him as “one of America’s top 25 leaders.”

Though he strongly opposes gay marriage or even civil union, he does favor partnership rights for gays including insurance coverage and hospital visitations—hardly satisfying to most liberals, gay or straight, but an improvement over many of the Evangelical haters on the right.

No doubt the view against Warren hardened recently when he spoke publicly in favor of California’s Proposition 8, which reversed a California Supreme Court decision that the rejection of same-sex marriage was unconstitutional.

And since Warren believes that only God can end a life, even when there is no quality to that life, he will also be remembered for his extreme opposition to the court’s decision in the Schiavo case.

Obama could easily have dodged the heat now coming from some of his most loyal supporters. But he must have decided that a “big tent” concept of a changed American political scene required him to make his position clear early in his Administration—and you can’t get earlier than Inaugural Day.

He can point out that he he has not compromised any of his own beliefs. When he appeared at Warren’s Civil Forum of the Presidency during the campaign, before a largely hostile audience, he made clear that he supported a woman’s right to choose, and equal rights for gays and straights. While he favors civil union over gay marriage, he opposed Prop. 8 as a divisive measure. We should also remember that he wants an end to homophobia in military recruitment and has promised to terminate the “don’t ask—don’t tell” policy.

On victory night in Grant Park he said he would be the President “of all the people.” He sees Warren delivering the invocation and Dr. Joseph Lowery, the civil right leader, delivering the benediction as a symbolic fulfillment of his “big tent” pledge.

His decision on Warren meshes with several other moves he’s made since the election. He helped Joe Lieberman keep his Senate committee chair when fellow Democrats were prepared to sack him for his strong McCain support. His surprise selection of Hillary Clinton—who had questioned his qualifications during the campaign—as Secretary of State is another example of his distinctive style.

Of course, supporters have a right to expect Obama to maintain his policy commitments on jobs, education, health care, global warming, the War in Iraq, human rights and civil liberties.

But on Inaugural Day critics should take a deep breath, understand Obama’s intentions, enjoy the music of Aretha Franklin, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma, and celebrate the end of the Bush era.

Filed Under: Articles | Commentary | New York | News | Politics

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