The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, December 19, 2008

Room at the Table

President-elect Obama’s choice of evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his Inauguration has drawn criticism from many progressive and especially harsh words from gays and lesbians. They view the selection of Warren as an affront to gay rights by Obama. The argue Obama is betraying a group that worked hard and donated generously to elect him.

Writing today in the Washington Post, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, seethes, “It is difficult to comprehend how [Obama] . . . could fail to grasp the symbolism of inviting an anti-gay theologian to deliver his Inaugural invocation.”

The chief or at least most-cited reason by Solmonese and other gay groups that Warren is fanatically homophobic is his role as “a general in the campaign to pass California's Proposition 8, which dissolved the legal marriage rights of loving, committed same-sex couples.”

I have posted repeatedly over the years in support of gay rights and I have recently posted that I believe the overturn of gay marriage by Californians was a mistake that changing social mores and laws will inevitably correct. Nevertheless, I must go on record that condemnation of Warren’s role in the Inauguration is hyperbolized over-reaction by the gay community and others.

Andrew Sullivan best exemplifies this over-the-top attitude. In his online column for The Atlantic, Sullivan announces, with the voice of doom, “. . . if anyone is under any illusion that Obama is interested in advancing gay equality, they should probably sober up now.”

Ron Chusid writes slightly more reasonably on the website Liberal Thought, “There is a time for trying to get along with those you disagree with but there are also times when it is best to marginalize those with extremist beliefs rather than to help provide them credibility.”

Despite its current hot button status, gay marriage is not the sum total of gay rights. Many Americans who favor equal treatment for homosexuals are ambivalent at best toward gay marriage. In truth, poll after poll finds that those favoring full recognition of gay couples as “married,” such as myself, are the ones on the extremist fringe at present.

Granted, Warren’s regrettable attitudes toward homosexuality go beyond opposition to gay marriage. Many point disgustedly to a recent interview with Beliefnet Editor-in-Chief Steven Waldman, in which Warren compared gay unions as comparable to those with incestuous or pedophilic elements. His concession that “in the hierarchy of evil . . . homosexuality is not the worst sin” is faint praise at best.

Yet in the same interview, Warren identified divorce as a greater threat to the American family than gay marriage, calling the choice a “no-brainer.” When then asked why many religious conservatives spend more time demonizing gay marriage rather than divorce, Warren replied, with self-deprecating honesty, “Oh we always love to talk about other sins more than ours.”

Moreover, when Waldman pressed him about whether his opposition to California’s Proposition 8 meant he was also against civil unions or domestic partnerships for gays, Warren responded, “I support full equal rights for everybody in America. I don’t believe we should have unequal rights depending on particular lifestyles.”

Both Warren personally as well as his church are leading advocates for people with HIV/AIDS. He has begun similar initiatives to fight poverty and illiteracy. He has spoken out on the needs of Christians to address topics like global warming and genocide in Darfur.

If it is a stretch to say Warren’s opposition to gay marriage makes him a full-fledged, hate-mongering Christian fundamentalist, then deducing from an invitation for him to speak at the Inauguration that Obama is no supporter of gay rights or even anti-gay is positively super-elastic.

Obama said he is a “fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans” at a news conference yesterday. In spite of this, both he and Vice-President-elect Biden made it clear throughout the campaign that they did not favor a Constitutional Amendment supporting gay marriage, arguing such decisions belong with the states. Why apparently this is such a sudden shock to some of his supporters is not clear to me.

The Obama Administration is actively considering William White, an openly gay man to be the next Secretary of the Navy. Perhaps they should withdraw him from consideration, since the Center for Military Readiness, which opposes gays serving in the military, has issued a statement saying such a choice “would be very demoralizing to the troops,” just as gays find the choice of Warren to be a sign of disrespect to them.

For that matter, perhaps Obama should also rescind his invitation to the Rev. Dr. Joseph E. Lowery to deliver the Inaugural benediction. Lowery is certainly an undisputed civil-rights champion but he once gave a speech in front of President Bush condemning the Iraq war and poverty in the U.S. that many in the crowd found offensive.

David Bordy, a senior national news correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, reports that for all the angry email and letter sent to Obama by gays and lesbians, CBN has received an equal number of messages from right-wing Christians outraged that Warren would have anything to do with the pro-abortion Obama.

The fact that the attitudes and tactics of the left look so much like those of the right in this instance ought to be telling us something.

One of those letters to Obama comes from Solmonese, who writes, “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.”

Almost every family has at least one horror story of a fight that begins at a holiday dinner and ends with someone storming from the table in angry tears. It takes courage to walk away from our loved ones in a declaration of personal principle. In contemporary American politics, it has become almost a shibboleth of leadership to not merely reject but also condemn and break with those holding objectionable views.

One reason Obama sought out Warren to speak is that he renounced his own long-time pastor during the campaign, after most Republicans and many Democrats found that man’s views contained too much anti-white racism to suffer toleration.

Yes, it takes courage to walk away from the table. Even so, sometimes, it takes still greater courage to walk back and sit down at it again with the person(s) toward whom we feel hostile, especially when we know they return that hostility, if only for the sake of others we love and respect in common.

Tolerance that will not endure dissent is no tolerance. Tolerance does not mean agreeing with opposing viewpoints but accepting the right of others to hold them and still be able to sit at the table.

As Warren himself has said of this matter, “Hopefully, individuals passionately expressing opinions from the left and the right will recognize that both of us have shown a commitment to model civility in America.”

Should they come to the table of the Inauguration, gays and their supporters have every right to tell Warren they believe he is wrong-headed in his beliefs and that they find his pronouncements against them hurtful. But they are wrong to insist there is no longer room at the table for them. Instead, they have chosen to walk away from the table in a moment of understandable hurt pride.

They need to find the courage to walk back and sit down again, lest they look far too much like those conservatives who refuse to respect their right to stand in the same line with them for marriage licenses.

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