On Monday, I decried Barack Obama's invitation to Rick Warren to give the invocation at the presidential inauguration on January 20, describing Obama's decision (twice) as "appalling and stupid." In off-list emails and on the comments board, readers have raised a number of questions exploring Obama's decision and the public reaction to it, ranging from the question of whether this is a betrayal at all to the suggestion that this is not even Obama's biggest blunder to date. Here, I will explain why the Warren invitation is uniquely deplorable, add a few comments about Warren's views, and suggest the best response to Obama's decision as his presidency unfolds. In a future post, I will discuss why I think this decision is categorically worse than his other poor decisions to date.
I continue to be stunned by Obama's extremely poor judgment in giving such a prominent position to a politically active minister whose positions on a range of issues are so at odds with Obama's views and those of most of Obama's supporters. Even so, some have suggested that Warren is a different kind of fundamentalist preacher who is not as intolerant as he seems. (High praise, indeed.) Even Melissa Etheridge, the singer and gay civil rights activist, has written in support of Warren, saying that Warren "regretted his choice of words in his video message to his congregation about proposition 8 when he mentioned pedophiles and those who commit incest. He said that in no way, is that how he thought about gays." Unfortunately, Warren has changed direction again, posting a video last weekend on his website in which he explicitly denied ever having drawn such comparisons, despite video evidence to the contrary.
Still, Obama himself has publicly stated that he also opposes gay marriage, right? If so, why is it so surprising that he would invite a fellow believer in "traditional marriage" as his spiritual voice at the inauguration? One answer is that, although Obama has not come out in favor of gay marriage, he did oppose Prop 8 in California. His supporters who are in favor of gay marriage thus were silent both on Obama's decision to state publicly that he opposes gay marriage and his decision not to campaign actively against Prop 8. In other words, those who are now upset with Obama are not asking for the moon and stars. They have already accepted that he felt he had to distance himself from them for "pragmatic" and "post-partisan" reasons. What I suspect they did not anticipate was an affirmative choice on Obama's part -- not prompted by the exigencies of a campaign with swing voters at stake -- that pours salt on the major wound from the election results. No one expected Obama's first official act to be officiating over a mass gay wedding on the White House lawn. One might, however, have expected Obama to understand that you do not kick some of your most ardent supporters when they are down.
On the other hand, many Obama supporters do not support gay marriage. Why should their views not be reflected in Obama's choice? First, this did not need to be an either/or choice. While I agree with those who find the whole notion of a religious invocation at a government event troubling, there really are ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, and others whom Obama could have invited for whom gay marriage would not have been a salient issue and whose public positions are inclusive rather than divisive. As a minister's son who is no longer religious, I continue to appreciate religious leaders who can give public prayers that are ecumenical and humanistic and whose public profiles match their rhetoric. Obama went a different way.
Furthermore, as I mentioned in my post on Monday, gay rights and gay marriage are the current great civil rights battle facing this country, putting President-Elect Barack Obama in a uniquely important position from which he can and should lead people to change their views about gay civil rights. Obama often invokes President John F. Kennedy as a role model. When Kennedy was running in 1960, the question was whether people could vote for a Roman Catholic to be president. Many of those who did vote for Kennedy surely opposed civil rights for African-American citizens, yet Kennedy did not say, "Well, my supporters oppose racial justice, so I'll leave that one alone." He not only did not invite an openly racist religious leader to give the invocation at his inauguration, but he was a leader on civil rights issues. One of the reasons I supported Obama was because I thought that he would know when to lead. He could still prove me right, but this is a very bad beginning.
Moreover, the objection to Warren need not be limited to (or even be principally about) his views on gay marriage. As I pointed out on Monday, he views homosexuality as something that people must "repent" before they can join his church. That is his choice in determining his church's rules, but it certainly puts him in league with the Robertsons and Falwells of the world and not with many, many other religious leaders whom Obama might have chosen. Warren also has described people who are pro-choice as "Holocaust deniers" and says that he differs only in "tone" from the most extreme leaders of the Christian Right such as James Dobson. Warren's views on women, moreover, include the "traditional" notion that wives must be completely subservient to their husbands; and spousal abuse does not -- repeat, does not -- constitute grounds for divorce in Warren's world.
Given all of this (and more), it is truly shocking to imagine that Barack Obama would make this decision. To repeat, the depth of my disappointment is not due to Obama's many choices to marginalize gay civil rights issues. Sadly, current political realities still make it suicidal for politicians to be in favor of gay marriage and to be "too open" about one's support of gay rights. The problem is that Obama made an affirmative choice, under no political pressure whatsoever, to pass over the whole range of inclusive religious leaders in this country and to choose someone whose very presence in the inauguration will make many of us feel less joy at this historic occasion.
Maybe Obama knows all of this yet chose to extend the invitation to Warren for purely consequentialist reasons. Warren did Obama a favor during the campaign by inviting him to a forum at Warren's church, and now Obama is doing his "friend" a favor in return. If so, then Obama has no sense of proportion, paying back Warren at, shall we say, usurious rates of interest. On the other hand, the liberal columnist E.J. Dionne suggested earlier this week that Obama's decision is not merely pay-back for a campaign favor but a down payment on getting Warren's support on issues such as anti-poverty programs and, more generally, a first step toward peeling away some religious voters from the Republican Party. If so, Obama has made a very big down payment, giving a key symbolic role to someone whose views on a wide range of issues are completely at odds with Obama's stated views.
That gamble could pay off. If it does, many who are currently in shock and disbelief will at least have to decide whether this cost-benefit approach to symbolic issues tips in favor of Obama's choice. In the meantime, however, Obama has lost the benefit of the doubt. He has shown that he takes his supporters for granted and is willing to insult them in the name of reaching out to those whose support he desires. Moving forward, the lesson to be learned is that those who want something from Obama should expect something big from him first, given the way he has treated those who supported him without a quid pro quo and who simply expected much better from him.
-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan