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.