Obama's Rick Warren Dilemma
When Obama invited Rick Warren to speak at the inauguration, he set off a major discussion about about what this says to the LGBT community, the Liberal (and Religious) Left, and the Religious Right. What's clear is that this particular decision has some hidden ramifications that will not be fully manifest for a very long time. Certainly the glee of the political punditry about what a great ploy this was (putting the Left in their place and making it clear that he is not beholding to them) tells us a lot about their desire to marginalize Liberals and the Liberal goals for creating a society that values all members of our society for the content of their character, and not the racial, sexual, physical and cultural differences that are used to artificially divide us.
Many people have noted that Rick Warren has said some hurtful and hateful things about gays when he compared them to polygamists and those who commit incest or other truly exploitative and destructive sexual relationships. After all, it is very disingenuous to say you love gays and to accuse them of this level of perversion.
Thus many who want to believe that Rick Warren sincerely desires dialog with other (religious) people of good will, still say he needs to apologize to the people he has harmed with his words. Nevertheless, they feel its okay for Obama to have selected Warren to speak.
For instance, today, Juan Cole wrote about how he found himself truly impressed with Rick Warren and his commitment to working with others who do not subscribe to his religion after meeting with him yesterday at the American Public Affairs Council. Also at this meeting was Melissa Etheridge, who has been deeply angered by the Religious Right interfering with her planned marriage with her long-time partner.
Warren said, "Let me just get this over very quickly. I love Muslims. And for the media's purpose, I happen to love gays and straights."
He explicitly mentioned meeting Etheridge, and explained that he has been a long time fan of hers, beginning with her self-titled first album of 1988. "I'm enough of a groupie," he said, "that I got her autograph on the Christmas album."
Warren also talked about the increasing rudeness and rancor of public life in the United States, and urged greater civility and willingness to work with people across the spectrum of opinion. He said, "We can disagree without being disagreeable." He also made a point of saying that al-Qaeda is no more representative of Islam than the KKK is of Christianity. Contrast that to the sorts of things Mike Huckabee or Rudi Giuliani said during the presidential campaign.
But just a gentle reminder to Warren that saying for Melissa Etheridge to be married to Tammy Lynn Michaels is equivalent to pedophilia or incest is not actually very civil or nice or humane.
Cole proceeds to lay out how he thinks Warren is sincere in his attempts to bridge the gap with other religions and in his desire to address the problems of the world. And Cole thinks that dialog with Warren will bring more peace and social justice to the world. Cole describes what he takes from Warren's message:
He has identified 5 major problems he wants to address: Spiritual emptiness, corrupt leadership, disease pandemics, dire poverty, and illiteracy. He wants to do job creation and job training. He wants to wipe out malaria in the areas where it is still active. He is convinced that religious congregations are the only set of organizations on earth that can successfully combat these ills. And he is entirely willing actively and directly to cooperate with mosques to get the job done.
Warren, in short, is a representative of the turn of some evangelicals to a social gospel. Since evangelicalism is a global movement and very interested in mission, his social gospel not surprisingly becomes a global social gospel. He is active in South Africa, Rwanda and more recently Uganda.
Yet, there are some deeply worrying indications that Cole's impression of Warren might be wrong.
Michelle Goldberg, a very astute observer of the Religious Right, notes that although Warren is seen as a more moderate Religious Right leader and that he has said his goal is to work to combat poverty, the actual evidence is anything but that, and it could have serious consequences beyond our shore.
Yet this is symbolism with real-world consequences and concrete implications. First of all, it reifies the image that Warren has been assiduously constructing for himself as "America’s Pastor," a post-partisan and benevolent figure with a quasi-official role atop the nation’s civic life. When it comes to his public persona, Warren is something of a magician. He has convinced much of the media and many influential Democrats that he represents a new, more centrist breed of evangelical with a broader agenda than the old religious right. This is, in many ways, deceptive. Yes, Warren has done a lot of work on AIDS in Africa, but he supports the same types of destructive, abstinence-only policies as the Bush administration. One of his protegés, Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, has been a major force in moving that country away from its lifesaving safer-sex programs. He’s been known to burn condoms at Makerere University, the prestigious school in Uganda’s capital, and in his Pentecostal services, marked by much sobbing and speaking in tongues, he offers the promise of faith healing to his desperate congregants, a particularly cruel ruse in a country ravaged by HIV.
Michelle Goldberg goes on to note that even when asked, Rick Warren is unable to distinguish his differences with James Dobson except as a matter of style. Furthermore, Warren believes that there is a strict hierarchy of authority which includes the fundamental correctness of the patriarchy. And he even admits to believing Jews are going to hell. If he thinks Jews are going to hell, what do you think he believes will happen with those Muslim allies he's now cultivating?
It seems that Obama and his team made this particular decision without truly understanding the overall consequences.
To judge that, perhaps one of the questions we can ask is who will be more likely empowered by Rick Warren's presence at the inauguration: Warren who says he is reaching out to other religious people of good will (note that those who are secular are excluded in even his most expansive view) or Obama who wants to engage the evangelical community to promote his priorities? Warren gets international recognition as a king maker. So he gets a huge coup by cultivating Obama.
And as Digby has written, it never hurts to kick hippies in the teeth when one wishes to be seen as a credible political leader, so perhaps Obama gets something from Warren's appearance rather than some short-lived willingness to listen. But the campaign needs to realize that you might not get what you really wanted, which is more real support for your agenda.
Another point to consider: Rick Warren and his friends are pretty aggressively against science and reality in regards to human sexuality and evolution. Who are you going to listen to when it comes to those issues? When Warren's policies of abstinence and faith-healing don't work, what is the administration going to do to address the problem and how much will need to be spent to undo the ignorance that was spread by the evangelical missionaries?
Nevertheless, the die have been cast and I don't think Obama can disinvite Warren now. Thus we will have to watch how the play plays out now.