December 30, 2008

Obama-Warren Invocation Madness: Why the Big Fuss?

It's the story that just won't go away. When I first heard about the controversy surrounding president-elect Obama's selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, I didn't think it was a big deal. After all, isn't that what mega-church pastors do best: pray in front of big crowds? Sure, I can understand why gay rights activists who had supported Obama's campaign felt somewhat betrayed since Warren was a big backer of California's Proposition 8 victory, but beyond that, I figured this was a flash-in-the-pan political tidbit that would simmer down over time. Surely there are more urgent priorities for the country than re-stoking the culture war's flames on the eve of 2009. Or so I thought.

Now that we're two weeks into invocation-gate, a slew of opinion pieces have been printed on the pages of publications like Time magazine, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times as well as popular websites like where just yesterday, Christopher Hitchens offered a predictably angry secularist rant, calling Rick Warren names like "religious nutbag" and "the huckster of Saddleback." But it's not just familiar atheists who are slinging mud at this pastor. According to David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), a whole bunch of pro-lifers are mad at Warren as well. Meanwhile, equally vocal left-leaning interest groups and gay rights activists are just as angry with Obama. It appears that I underestimated how much people still want to keep jabbering about the Obama-Warren connection, as if this event somehow means these two men think exactly alike on hot-buttons like abortion and gay marriage.

Nothing could be further from the truth, but those on the extreme ends of both left and right thrive on anything that will add fuel to the polarization between "us" and "them." After all, the world of politics is so much easier to explain in hard and fast categories of black and white, good and evil. Pro-life pastors aren't supposed to publicly pray for pro-choice politicians, who in turn are not supposed to be on speaking terms with anyone who is "intolerant" of gays. Liberals must have assumed Obama was only talking to conservatives when he gave all of those lofty campaign speeches about moving beyond our partisan differences. For conservatives, it was a lot easier to paint Obama as the enemy when his Reverend of choice was named Wright and not Warren.

Theologically speaking, I consider myself an evangelical Christian, but I'm not a huge fan of Rick Warren per se. I have qualms with his "purpose-driven" sloganization of the Christian faith and market-based approach that sees church growth in terms of customer satisfaction and and pastors as CEOs. And while I'm not sure if agree with his controversial comments on the subject of homosexuality (it's hard to say anything NOT controversial on the topic these days), it really doesn't bother me that he was Obama's choice for the task. As Sarah Pulliam of Christianity Today aptly pointed out, where was all this ruckus when Joel Hunter, a pro-life, anti-gay marriage mega-church pastor prayed with Obama on Election Day as well as at the Democratic National Convention four months ago? How come no one was calling Obama a "traitor" back then? And while he has strongly supported GLBT rights as much as any other Democrat who ran for president in 2008, isn't Obama's official position on gay marriage that he opposes it?

Just as our new president might turn out to be more moderate than some evangelicals fear, perhaps Rev. Warren is not as right-wing as Arianna Huffington's band of liberal bloggers would like to think. Contrary to the prevailing stereotypes held by those on the outside looking in, we evangelicals are a politically diverse bunch that include not just household names like Billy Graham and Sarah Palin, but also respected scholars like Mark Noll and Richard Mouw, as well as a new generation of writers like Donald Miller and Shane Claiborne. We don't all vote the same way or think exactly alike. For a group that has often been associated with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tim LaHaye and Ted Haggard, you could do a lot worse in choosing a spokesperson than Rick Warren, who again, contrary to popular perception, is actually one of the least politically partisan of those who fit the category of "evangelical celebrity." Despite his strong support of Prop 8, Warren is not a card-carrying member of the religious right. During the campaign season, he hosted both Obama and John McCain at his church, but he never endorsed either one or gave any indication of who he voted for. That fact that people from both parties have suspected Warren of voting for the "other" side is evidence of his non-partisanship.

Much to the frustration of culture warriors on both ends of the spectrum, neither Obama nor Warren seems interested in continuing the practice of using abortion or gay marriage as litmus test issues. If either of them did, there's no way we'd ever see them sharing a stage, much less the U.S. Capitol's steps on January 20th. Beyond the hot buttons, there is a broader set of issues including global poverty, climate change, AIDS and genocide on which they agree. While I would not likely choose Warren as my pastor or favorite author by any means, he's a more than adequate choice to pray at the inauguration. How many mega-church pastors do you know who reverse tithe, giving away 90% while keeping 10%?

So let's all take a collective breath and chillax because Warren's invocation is not an endorsement of the incoming president's entire package of policy positions and Obama's selection of Warren is not an endorsement of everything the pastor believes. If we could just agree on that much, it would be a good place to start.


Cheryl said...

I agree: more chillaxing needed.

Adam Bailey said...

Followed link from beliefnet here.

I never thought Obama's invitation to Warren was a reflection on either man's endorsement of the other's stance on political issues.

As a gay man still smarting from the success of Prop. 8, I do view it as a slap in the face, however. An invitation to pray at the inauguration is a big deal; it's an honor and an award. I do not believe Rick Warren--a man who demonizes gay men and women both in word and deed--deserves such an award.

I wasn't worried about the invitation, or even the prayer itself. I just think asking him instead of any of the thousands clergy who support GLBT people was inappropriate and misguided.

The Common Loon said...

Thanks for your response, Adam. I'm glad we both agree that Obama's invitation to Warren was not a reflection on either man's endorsement of the other's stance on political issues.

As an evangelical Christian (theologically speaking, not politically), I would like to personally apologize and repent for the way my religious tradition has often demonized people like yourself.

For those of us who claim to follow the example of Jesus, I believe there is no place for hatred or oppression on the basis of someone's sexual orientation.

It is simply wrong to scapegoat members of the GLBT community for the breakdown of the family or any other social problem that heterosexuals (myself included) are largely responsible for.

Still, I would be interested to hear your response to a couple questions:

1) Is it ever possible to oppose same-sex marriage without automatically "demonizing" gay men and women? In other words, do you think there is any room for civil dialogue between those with differing viewpoints on this controversial issue or is it impossible not to demonize gay men and women as long as one opposes the right of gays and lesbians to marry?

2) Given the fact that President himself does not explicitly support gay marriage, what are you hoping for from the Obama White House over the next 4 years?

Adam Bailey said...


Thanks for your thoughtful reply!

Let me respond to your questions.

1. Is it possible to be against gay marriage without being anti-gay?

Yes, of course. But, I think the definition of "marriage" in this context is crucial. Is it OK to be anti-gay marriage if marriage means a covenant between man, woman, and God? An emphatic yes. At risk of sounding trite, I think religions should be free to marry whomever they like, be it only heterosexual couples, only homosexual couples, even only couples of the same race. I think religious marriage should be completely out of reach of the state.

However, when we're taking about legalizing gay marriage--that is, enabling the state to recognize the marriage between two people of the same gender--that is a different story altogether. I don't believe it's possible to be anti-"government sanctioned gay marriage" without being anti-gay. The reason is that when one opposes government recognition of gay marriage, one opposes equal rights for gays. That is, on its face, anti-gay. There is no exception here, even for the religious. I don't think churches should be forced to marry same sex couples; I don't think any of the advocates of gay marriage do. We just want equal rights in the law--something we deserve as citizens.

2. What do I hope comes from Obama?

I don't really think it's relevant what the President thinks about gay marriage. I'm more concerned on what he thinks about equal protection under the law. I don't believe one can argue for equal protection while at the same time opposing government recognition of same-sex marriage. The President (or anyone) can feel whatever he likes about gays marrying, but if he believes in equal rights, he must set aside his personal beliefs in favor of the Constitution.

Just a quick example to elucidate. Let's say I'm the President and I personally oppose funding of transportation projects in Hawai'i because I think the projects are harming Hawaiians. As President, I couldn't just cut Hawai'i out of the federal funding stream on personal whim--there are protections there for the citizens who pay taxes, have the rights to equal protections, etc. etc. The citizens of Hawai'i deserve all the same rights and benefits as anyone in the US, right? Despite my personal objections, I would be constrained by the law to fund Hawaiian transportation. It's all part of living in our Republic.

I think civil recognition is the same thing. We live in a diverse Republic. Oftentimes we will have to set aside our personal feelings in favor of the ties that bind us together as countrymen.

I hope I was clear. If not, let me know. I'd be interested to hear what you have to say. I think the crux of the argument boils down to how one defines marriage. I think it's a civil institution that churches replicate. You may think differently.

PS: I hope that rail project went through. It makes a ton of sense.

I enjoy your blog; keep writing!

The Common Loon said...

Thanks for your sincere thoughts, Adam.

I completely agree that the crux of the issue is how we choose to define marriage. Unlike most of my fellow evangelicals, I would not be outraged if (or when) gay marriage is legalized (as in Massachusetts for example). I’m not hell-bent on stopping this from happening because there is a host of other issues that I see as far more pressing: global poverty, Darfur, climate change, healthcare, education and energy independence to name a few. On the other hand, I’m very reluctant to support the re-definition of marriage (in both the religious and civic sense) because of my adherence to the traditional Christian faith, which is inextricably linked to my understanding of God’s design for human sexuality.

For the most part, I do not think the government should be regulating what goes on in private between consenting adults, but the main reason that adult sexual relationships are still of concern to the state (i.e. the regulation of marriage and divorce) is because of the effect they have on children, who all deserve to be raised in the homes of committed parents as often as possible. Even if I were to limit my attention to the civil, and not religious, recognition of gay marriage, I still have many conflicting thoughts and emotions, thanks to my odd mix of politically progressive, yet theologically conservative beliefs.

When it comes to quandaries such as these, my views are a work in progress, shaped by the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” of Scripture, reason, experience and tradition. I don’t want to be guilty of chronological snobbery (new always trumps old) or twisting the Biblical texts to mean what I want them to say simply because I feel guilty about the historic hostility of Christians toward gays and lesbians which sadly continues to this day. While I would agree that GLBT individuals’ civil rights must be protected (right to life, property, religious freedom, free speech, freedom of association, access to a fair trial, participation in political and legal processes, and equal treatment under the law), I’m not sure whether the right to get married falls under this category since it requires a new legal definition of marriage.

Since I firmly believe that homosexual people have the same types of economic and relational vulnerabilities and needs as heterosexuals have (if not more so), I see no problem with civil unions, except for the fact that no one seems to be happy with this type of compromise (depending on one’s persuasion, it either goes too far for conservatives or not far enough for the GLBT community). Because so much of the gay marriage debate has been dominated by both extremes of the political spectrum who prefer to shout at each other instead of having a respectful dialogue (like the one we’re having), I’m still formulating my thoughts on the issue, often with more questions than answers.

For example, if we changed the civic definition of marriage to include gay and lesbian partnerships, what would this new definition be? Would such a change imply that Western civilization has been using the wrong definition of marriage for the past several thousand years? Which civic definition of marriage (old or new) best protects children from the consequences of divorce and family instability?

Regardless of how long it takes me to arrive at any firm conclusions (it could be a very long time), your perspective is one that gives me hope for more respectful dialogue in the future. What we need is less heat and more light.