On Rick Warren … and Reverend Lowery … and LGBT Rights … and Obama’s Inauguration. ~Danny Fisher.

Via elephantjournal dotcom
on Dec 21, 2008
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Hope in Rev. Lowery ~ by Danny Fisher

Speaking at a function held in Kansas on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day two years ago, the Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery, the civil rights icon and founder (with Dr. King) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said:

We must call the nation to…include those excluded, to make good [the] promissory note [that is Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech]…Don’t let [Dr. King be put] in the rotunda of sentimentality and irrelevancy.

Lowery’s entire life has been spent trying to make King’s dream a reality. His record as an advocate and activist for those who have historically been excluded in our country is nothing short of astounding. Of late, this dedication has manifested itself in his strong support for same-sex marriage. Speaking about the issue with ABC News, he expressed his support for full marriage rights for gay couples and said:

When you talk about the law discriminating—the law granting a privilege here, and denying it there—that’s a civil rights issue. And I can’t take it away from anybody.

For progressives, the recent and exciting news that Lowery will offer the benediction at President-Elect Barack Obama’s highly-anticipated inauguration this coming January was overshadowed by another piece of information about the event: that conservative evangelical pastor Dr. Rick Warren will give the invocation at the same function.

Warren is founder and senior pastor of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, CA. One of the largest “mega-churches” in the country, Saddleback boasts a weekly attendance of nearly 25,000. In addition, Warren’s tome, The Purpose-Driven Life, is one of the bestselling nonfiction books of all-time. This enormous level of popularity has afforded Warren unprecedented opportunities to participate in both international forums and American politics. Quite remarkably, for example, the first appearance together by presumptive nominees Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) during the 2008 President Campaign occurred at Saddleback, where Warren hosted them for a “Civil Forum on the Presidency.”

Warren has used his influence in service of some worthy causes, most notably in raising awareness about AIDS in Africa and the climate crisis. At the same time, however, he works just as hard to undermine the efforts of progressives on many important social issues in the United States. This past fall, for example, he publicly endorsed the California ballot initiative Proposition 8, which defines marriage in the state as between a man and a woman only and denies the right of same-sex couples to marry, and encouraged his powerful congregation to work to ensure its eventual passage. He has also said that he does not believe in evolution, and that “non-negotiable” positions for Christians include opposition to gay marriage, reproductive rights, and stem-cell research.

In addition, for someone supposedly concerned about civility in public discourse, Warren has failed to consistently exemplify the virtue himself. He refers to reproductive rights advocates as “Holocaust deniers” and participants in Protestant Christianity’s Social Gospel theological movement as “Marxists”. He has called for the assassination of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, saying that the Bible exhorts the faithful to “punish evildoers.” He called Michael Schiavo’s highly-publicized decision to remove his wife Terry’s feeding tube “an atrocity worthy of Nazism.” He’s on the record saying that non-Christians—including Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, non-believers, and others—will go to hell. And, in a recent interview with Beliefnet, he compared homosexuality to pedophilia, incest, and polygamy, and said he opposes even civil unions for gay couples.

Progressives, particularly those from the LGBT community, have been understandably upset about the choice of Warren to serve as what television pundit Rachel Maddow appropriately terms “spiritual clarion” for one of the most important U.S. Presidential inaugurations in history. The Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBT political action committee in the U.S., immediately issued an open letter to President-Elect Obama saying:

[The] invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation…is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans… By inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table.

It was bestselling author Michelle Goldberg, though, who put the decision into much larger context:

Feminists and gay people have long feared that the Democrats’ much-vaunted new religious outreach would come at their expense, and the Warren choice seriously exacerbates such anxieties. Both groups have long complained that that their concerns aren’t taken seriously by the broader progressive coalition, a lament that’s gained urgency in the wake of the explosive sexual politics that marked the election. By honoring Warren, Obama is rubbing salt into wounds that have barely begun to heal.

The President-Elect responded to questions about Warren at a press conference the day after the announcement, saying:

During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented, and that’s how it should be, because that’s what America is about. Part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated.

Obama was also quick to remind reporters that he had run a different kind of campaign:

…Dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign’s been all about: That we’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.

In addition, Obama talked about Warren’s willingness to have him at Saddleback on several occasions despite their political differences. He also suggested that Lowery, with his “contrasting” views, would balance out Warren.

Despite these nice explanations, problems remain. On the one hand, Obama’s commitment to reconciling the red/blue state dichotomy has been admirable—fundamental to his enormous appeal. It represents one of the ways he offers the change from politics-as-usual that he has promises. On the other hand, a cynic might say that he’s given himself a great out for the times when he has to make a decision that is unpopular with his base: he can say, “I’m not politicking, I’m reaching across the aisle—I’m assembling a ‘team of rivals’!” At the risk of giving the cynics too much credit, it must be said that politicking seems to be a part of what’s going on here. With evangelicals playing a decisive role in the last three Presidential elections, the Democratic Party may want to court the demographic if it intends to keep its members in office. At the moment, Warren is the highest profile evangelical in the country, and his participation will inevitably have an effect on some Americans uneasy about Barack Hussein Obama taking the Oath of Office. (It is worth mentioning that Warren himself has been taking heat from some evangelical factions over his willingness to give the invocation.)

One of the positive outcomes of Warren’s invitation for progressives is that it has forced Obama to make strong statements of support for the LBGT community—something presidents have never been in the habit of doing. And yet, the President-Elect’s placating of many evangelical voters with Warren has come at the cost of sending the LGBT community a hurtful message in the wake of Prop. 8: a person who says horrible things about you and actively works against your civil rights is the person we feel is best suited to serve as “spiritual clarion” on our historic first day. As Goldberg puts it:

Insulting your supporters to win the support of your opponents is no way to build unity.

What’s more, the flap over Warren raises an important question: while the importance of dialogue is a given, doesn’t Obama still have a responsibility to say things like “Bigotry will not be accepted—period” or “I won’t give a pulpit to those who preach intolerance”? In a recent editorial for the Washington Post, HRC President Joe Solmonese argued that Lowery would not exactly balance Warren, saying:

…Would any inaugural committee say to Jewish Americans, “We’re opening with an anti-Semite but closing the program with a rabbi, so don’t worry”?

At this point, however, rescinding the invitation to Warren would a tricky proposition—no matter how necessary it may be—as it would undoubtedly have an adverse effect on the DNC’s efforts to curry favor with the evangelical community. Progressives’ last hope for a “fix” on this issue, then, may be Lowery. While his presence may not make up for Warren’s, the firebrand Methodist minister is well known for fearlessly speaking truth to power. In 2006, he made headlines with his eulogy at the funeral for Coretta Scott King: with millions watching, and a visibly uncomfortable George W. Bush sitting directly behind him on stage, he excoriated the Administration over the War in Iraq. To a thunderous and sustained standing ovation, he said:

We know now there were no weapons of mass destruction over there. But Coretta knew and we know that there are weapons of misdirection right down here. Millions without health insurance. Poverty abounds. For war billions more, but no more for the poor!

While it might be righteous to see Lowery homiletically throw down again, what’s really needed now is a benediction that does a few important things.

It should honor Obama’s dedication to dialogue and vision of unity, but draw a line at bigotry. It should say that these are values we should strive to hold in common as Americans. It should reassure the LGBT community that they have a place at the table, and that the administration will learn from this clumsy, early chapter. It should say that the time has come to make good Dr. King’s promissory note in full.

Blessedly, Rev. Lowery is exactly the right man for the job.


Fore more like this, go to Rev. Danny Fisher’s most excellent blog—one of elephant journal’s favorites.



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17 Responses to “On Rick Warren … and Reverend Lowery … and LGBT Rights … and Obama’s Inauguration. ~Danny Fisher.”

  1. rusty says:

    While I understand the outrage of some people regarding the selection of Rick Warren, I also understand that Obama does not exclusively represent the liberals or the the conservatives… He now represents America. No one owns him, and he spoke about uniting both sides of the aisle during the entire 2 years of the campaign. He never spoke about uniting both sides only when both sides agree with him.

    How you think personally may be different and the position against Warren makes sense, but I think we should respect Obama’s decision and embrace what we have in common instead of exacerbating our differences.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rusty. I think you’re right about Obama’s responsibility about representing America. However, I would repeat here something I wrote in the piece, which was inspired by a particularly impassioned statement made by a good friend of mine in a Facebook conversation on this very issue:

    While the importance of dialogue is a given, doesn’t Obama still have a responsibility to say things like “Bigotry will not be accepted—period” or “I won’t give a pulpit to those who preach intolerance”? In a recent editorial for the Washington Post, HRC President Joe Solmonese argued that Lowery would not exactly balance Warren, saying:

    …Would any inaugural committee say to Jewish Americans, “We’re opening with an anti-Semite but closing the program with a rabbi, so don’t worry”?

  3. Sorry. That second sentence should read: “I think you’re right about Obama’s responsibility to represent the whole of America.”

  4. rusty says:

    If I put myself in Obama’s shoes, I have to represent the whole of America in my inauguration… the good parts and the bad parts. It’s what he campaigned on, and I respect that even if I differ personally.

    I thought this was a good article:

  5. Andrew says:

    Excellent article – one of the best and most reasoned and specifically detailed so far.

    Obama’s willingness to engage with others who do not share his views is admirable, but this choice in this context seems inappropriate, given Warren’s record of public statements on various matters detailed in this article. This choice enshrines exclusion within the rituals heralding a new government apparently committed to inclusion.

    But what are the consequences of witnessing the inclusion of the excluding?

    And how about including some of the excluded?

    The response to the selection of Warren must have been anticipated. Meanwhile, the prospect of leadership on GLBTGQI matters at a federal level remains lacking. There have been plenty of promises made about other things: healthcare, a green new deal, bridge building. How about throwing something our way to show us that you care for more than just our votes? Think immigration, taxation, the military, and over 1,000 areas where the federal government has jurisdiction over public life. Would it be so hard to make a commitment to something specific, to prove that life *is* going to be better for members of GLBTQI communities under Obama? Because all of these other promises are going to mean little to many of us if we cannot share them with the ones we love. The GLBTQI communities can’t just wait and listen any longer.

    We are waiting …

    At the same time, gay activists in the US perhaps need to think about what they want. Given the passionate hostility of many opponents, might the idea of civil unions (rather than gay marriage) be more apt? I am British and live in the UK, where we enjoy the full rights and benefits of a civil partnership, and I do *not* in any way feel that separate is unequal. Let’s face it, we are in many ways still separate; I come out of a separate history (when I was born, homosexuality was illegal in the UK!). And progress never happens overnight.

    Civil partnerships came about in the UK with no significant opposition (this might not have been the case with gay marriage). As a result, we enjoy *EVERYTHING* enjoyed by straight married couples: tax, pensions, benefits, adoption, immigration, all the little things that matter on a daily basis. And most of all, this means we enjoy the acknowledgement that it is not acceptable to exclude homosexuals from public life. We are full members of a civil society, with the same rights, privileges, and duties. And in practice everyone refers to ‘getting married’ anyway! It’s much less of a mouthful than ‘entering into a civil partnership’.

    Progress will only be made with some compromise on both sides, and perhaps civil unions or civil partnerships offer a way through this. Rick Warren, however, is too much of a compromise. However politely expressed, the ferocity (and untruth) of much of his rhetoric is a violent refutation of any ideal of inclusion or claim to civility.

    Furthermore, the defence put forward by Obama’s camp smacks of political spin and feels hollow. What concerns me is how so many are so quick to jump to defend Obama’s choice as part of some ‘sophisticated’ scheme of His ‘magical wisdom’ (direct quotes from other bloggers). I can’t work out whether this is insensitive or simply plain naive. Yes We Can’t?! If Bush (or McCain) had asked Warren to give the invocation, I am sure various Obamafans would have criticised his selection. and though I hate being cynical at this time of great hope, I’m beginning to wonder when people are going to start watering down the Kool Aid. If this new administration is going to achieve the many things that are necessary, *everyone* is going to need to employ critical minds as well as open hearts.

  6. Again, I think Obama’s efforts to speak to all Americans and get them to speak to each other is both heroic and wise. BUT, as Leah McElrath Renna says in the Newsweek piece you reference, the problem here is that “the person selected to deliver the invocation has the honor of serving as the spiritual representative for the entire nation…What impact do you think this choice will have on the millions of LGBT people of faith in this country to see [Warren] being put forth as a spiritual representative for the nation as a whole?” There are much less polarizing figures Obama could have invited to provide a balance with Lowery.

    Ultimately, I agree with Goldberg: efforts at representing the whole of America have flopped here. In placating one part of America, Obama seems to have insulted another. This makes me feel like the decision to invite Warren, then, is unfortunately much more politics-as-usual than it is “change we can believe in.” I hope he proves me wrong, but this isn’t a great start.

  7. Here's yet another interesting perspective on this issue, courtesy of the same friend I mentioned in my first comment. It's John Cloud writing for TIME MAGAZINE:


    The choicest and most provocative quote:

    "Obama reminds me a little bit of Richard Russell Jr., the longtime Senator from Georgia who — as historian Robert Caro has noted — cultivated a reputation as a thoughtful, tolerant politician even as he defended inequality and segregation for decades. Obama gave a wonderfully Russellian defense of Warren on Thursday at a press conference. Americans, he said, need to 'come together' even when they disagree on social issues. 'That dialogue is part of what my campaign is all about,' he said. Russell would often use the same tactic to deflect criticism of his civil rights record. It was a distraction, Russell said, from the important business of the day uniting all Americans. Obama also said today that he is a 'fierce advocate for equality' for gays, which is — given his opposition to equal marriage rights — simply a lie. It recalls the time Russell said, 'I'm as interested in the Negro people of my state as anyone in the Senate. I love them.'"

  8. John says:

    Amen! Great perspective! Typo on inauguration in the title, however.

    Peace in the name of all that is holy to you,


  9. admin says:

    I’m with Rusty. Clearly Warren’s been way out of line in the past, but he does seem to be a compassionate (all his AIDS work), moderate (he’s all about fighting climate change, not just acknowledging it, and far from denying it) person. I think we could probably change his mind on civil unions.

    And as for Andrew’s eloquent, moving note, I agree—if we leave aside marriage, which is after all defined by churches as far as I know, and we focus on equal rights under the law, full civil unions (many current civil unions don’t include all rights in American, I don’t think) would be a great place to start.

  10. Andrew says:

    However reasoned and reasonable we try to be on this noticeboard, I am getting a little tired of apologists for Warren, as well as apologists for Obama who praise his inclusivity while telling us to wait and see. Wait for what? Likewise, objections from the uppity gays are in many places being brushed aside as minor irritants getting in the way of Obama’s special day and His grand projects.

    What I am hearing is heterosexual privilege imploring us to wait and see what the big man in the white house has in store for us. That’s a lot of faith and hope invested in someone who’s not so far gone on the record to offer anything substantial to GLBTQI communities.

    Unless we ask, and insist, and act, will anything be forthcoming?

    Meanwhile, there is the simple fact that Rick Warren has been asked to read the invocation at the hugely symbolic ceremony that commences Obama’s presidency. And Rick Warren is an excluder:


    Yes, ‘someone unwilling to repent of their homosexual lifestyle’ would not be accepted as a member at Warren’s Saddleback Church.

    Barack Obama, you WON the election. You have a mandate. By all means speak to whoever is required to achieve bipartisan progress. But invite this man to read the invocation at your inauguration, and you’re telling us it’s okay to exclude. You are in fact enshrining it within your presidency.

    If you are so keen on inclusion, why not invite David Dukes to the inauguration?

  11. Andrew says:

    And let me throw this into the mix: on the occasion of civil partnerships passing into law, Tony Blair (for all his other foibles) proving that the leader of a nation can act with ahem leadership on GLBTQI issues:


  12. Andrew:

    Amen! In particular, I’m in strong agreement with this statement of yours:

    “Barack Obama, you WON the election. You have a mandate. By all means speak to whoever is required to achieve bipartisan progress. But invite this man to read the invocation at your inauguration, and you’re telling us it’s okay to exclude. You are in fact enshrining it within your presidency.”

    Well said. And to your point about waiting, I submit the following:

    “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'” – The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Thank you.

  13. MSNBC has a development in this story. Rev. Joseph Lowery has clarified his position. He says:

    “I’ve never said I support gay marriage. I support gay rights and I support civil unions. Like a whole lot of people, I have some difficulty with the term gay marriage. Because deep in my heart, deeply rooted in my heart and mind, marriage is associated with man and woman. So I have a little cultural shock with that. But I certainly support civil unions, and that gay partners ought to have all the rights that any other citizens have in this country.”


    For more:


  14. Hawaiian style says:

    Rev. Warren is a charismatic preacher. He is also a bigot.

    Obama is either a dupe or filled with ego after winning the election. His ego might be telling him I can do whatever I want…

    Pride goeth before the fall

    Inclusion does not mean exclusion of others.

  15. […] liberals hold their breath and try and keep cynicism from flooding in where hope rose so recently, and the country waits with empty wallets and […]

  16. […] a new twist in the flap over President-Elect Obama’s inauguration that I wrote about for elephant journal earlier this week. Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil rights icon and co-founder (with the Rev. Dr. […]

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