Barack Obama’s choice of evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration has provoked outrage from progressives, who have condemned it as a slap at his base and at gay and lesbian supporters in particular. Wasn’t Obama’s election a repudiation of the religious right? Couldn’t he have picked a more progressive figure–like civil rights leader Joseph Lowery, who supports same-sex marriage and is giving the closing benediction? Why won’t Democrats behave like Republicans, who reward their religious base with state spoils both symbolic and monetary?
I understand the left’s sense of betrayal, but this reaction to Obama’s choice is off the mark. It’s a sign of how much we have conceded to the religious right that almost nobody asked why there should be an invocation at all. Sure, it’s an argument they’re unlikely to win, in part because Obama is a synergistically religious politician who enthusiastically speaks the language of faith and government (though for many years there was no invocation at the inauguration, and the famously devout John Quincy Adams refused to be sworn in on the Bible because he thought it should be reserved for worship). But it’s just as unlikely that Obama will be shamed into rescinding Warren’s invitation. So as long as the left is on the side of losing arguments, why not make the case for secularism, the separation of church and state and the purity of the constitutional oath? Why accept the Rovian premise that elections are referendums on religion and then squabble over which God (“a more inclusive God,” say gay critics) was most recently legitimated by the vote?
In this culture war calculus, Obama’s decision to split the difference–Warren at the top, Lowery at the close–makes perfect sense. After all, Warren and Obama are not as unlike as progressives would like to believe. They disagree about abortion, but both want to expand faith-based initiatives for social services. Indeed, Warren has earned accolades from many Democrats (including Obama) as a new breed of evangelical interested in poverty reduction and climate change. They cheered as he and his wife, Kay, became major players in the AIDS world even though Warren’s programs, some funded by Bush’s global AIDS plan, advocated abstinence-only education and Christian conversion. Obama and the Democrats may now limit cases of evangelizing on the federal dime and inject science into the mix, but the door to proselytizing and privatization remains wide open.
As for the hot issue of gay marriage, Warren campaigned for Proposition 8, which Obama opposed, but both are against same-sex marriage on religious grounds. Warren invokes familiar right-wing aspersions–that homosexuality is akin to incest, pedophilia and polygamy. Obama’s position comes off as more considerate, though no less religiously determined. “I’m a Christian,” he said in 2004, “and so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue…my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.”
But here’s the bright spot for gays and lesbians: there’s actually common ground that they might find with Obama and Pastor Rick–it’s just not on religious terms. Both say they support full equal rights for gays and lesbians. Let’s test this premise by pushing forward a federal civil union bill that guarantees all the rights of marriage for same-sex couples, as Obama has suggested in his platform. Perhaps over time, some straights will want in on this God-free institution too, and we’ll have civil unions for everyone. Then Warren will be free to sanctify as marriages only the unions he likes. And I’ll be free to sanctify mine by whatever idol I choose, or to choose not to at all.