No one should be surprised that President-elect Barack Obama would choose self-promoting Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inaugural. Warren has been hustling for years to make himself the “new Billy Graham” — seeking to fill the vacating role of spiritual adviser to presidents, be they born-again Republicans or born-right-the-first-time Democrats.
Obama, always on the watch for ways to broaden his base of support, has been developing a relationship with Warren for many years, as he has with other fundamentalist preachers who try to put a smile on their intolerance.
Back in December 2006, when he was merely a senator with unannounced presidential ambitions, Obama delivered a smart, sensitive address at Warren’s “2006 Global Summit on AIDS and the Church,” a high-profile event on the pastor’s Saddleback Church campus in Lake Forest, Calif.
Twenty months later, as the soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee, Obama went back to Saddleback for an unfortunate joint appearance with Republican John McCain — the last major misstep of the senator’s bid for the nation’s top job.
Past is prologue, and Obama’s dalliances with Warren, for better or worse, always pointed to the placement of this particular pastor on the inaugural stage.
What will be significant about Warren’s remarks, however, is that they will be so insignificant.
Warren’s invocation will be forgotten five minutes after it is finished.
Indeed, the only “news” that will come from his appearance at the inaugural is the controversy surrounding it — and the protests that controversy may spark.
Far more significant, and encouraging, than his off-putting selection of Warren to deliver the invocation is Obama’s choice of a genuine spiritual progressive to deliver the benediction.
It is the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery who will present the far more uplifting and meaningful religious message on Inauguration Day. And in his appealing selection of the 87-year-old Lowery, Obama has made a choice that is far more adventurous — even, dare we say, radical — than his unappealing designation of Warren.
Lowery was the longtime president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which he co-founded in 1957, before Obama was born, with the Revs. Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph David Abernathy and Fred Shuttlesworth. An essential player in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Lowery was sent by King to deliver the demands of the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march to Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace, and it was to Lowery that Wallace apologized three decades later.
Long after King and most of the other founding fathers of the civil rights movement had been buried, Lowery carried on the struggle. He led the 1982 drive to extend the federal Voting Rights Act. In 2005, when it came time to renew the act once more, Lowery famously cornered Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a memorial service for Rosa Parks to ask for maintaining voting rights protections. Why did Lowery choose so somber a setting to make his appeal to the most prominent African-American member of President Bush’s Cabinet? “Because I knew she could not move,” he explained.
Lowery has never hesitated to speak truth to power. In 2006, he earned national attention — cheers from progressives, scorn from conservatives — when he used a eulogy for his close friend Coretta Scott King to deliver a scathing denunciation of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade and occupy Iraq. Bush was sitting just a few feet away as the pastor spoke in blunt biblical terms about the sin of waging a “pre-emptive” war.
While Warren has compared the loving relationships of same-sex couples to incest and child molestation, campaigned on behalf of legislation that authorizes discrimination based on sexual orientation, and refused membership in his Saddleback Church to out gays and lesbians, Lowery has long been in the forefront of advocating for gay and lesbian rights.
In 2000, Lowery was one of the most prominent backers of a campaign to reverse the United Methodist Church doctrine that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” announcing his support for a United Methodists of Color statement objecting to the policy and to disrespect of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons by United Methodism.
“Remembering the voices who have told us to wait on justice, we dispute the notion that issues of race and nationality are so overwhelming that to fight for another issue of injustice is to water down the movement,” declared the statement Lowery backed. “For the storehouses of God’s justice do not run low, and we must recognize the interconnectedness of all forms of oppression if we are ever to achieve the kingdom. The realm of God is at hand.”
In a speech to a dinner during that year’s general convention of the United Methodist Church, Lowery asked leaders of the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination: “How could the church, because of a person’s sexual orientation, deny ministry to those whom God has called?”
The civil rights movement leader’s counsel was to err on the side of inclusion rather than exclusion.
Since then, Lowery has been an outspoken foe of the same moves to discriminate against gays and lesbians that Warren has supported.
“I support gays rights,” says Lowery.
“When you talk about the law discriminating, the law granting a privilege here, and a right here and denying it there, that’s a civil rights issue,” he explained in 2004, when stating his opposition to state-based initiatives to ban gay marriage and civil unions. “And I can’t take that away from anybody.”
Lowery, at 87, admits to “a little cultural shock” regarding the question of gay marriage. “But,” he adds, “I certainly support civil unions, and that gay partners ought to have all the rights that any other citizens have in this country.”
With regard to Rick Warren, Lowery is blunt: “I differ with the young pastor who’s going to give the (invocation). I differ with him sharply on his position on this issue. I don’t think we ought to put into law any discriminatory action against people because of race, or ethnicity or sexual orientation. I oppose that.”
And, on Inauguration Day, it is a sound bet that the pastor who challenged George Wallace’s bigotry and George Bush’s war-making will challenge the backward thinking of Rick Warren and all those who would presume that the storehouses of God’s justice run low when it comes to the rights of gays and lesbians.