Obama’s Divisive Choice of Rick Warren

On the left, reaction to the news that Rick Warren would be giving the invocation at Barack Obama’s inauguration was swift and furious. The president of The Human Rights Campaign, the country’s largest gay and lesbian human rights organization, published an open letter to the president-elect, which began, “Let me get right to the point. Your invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at your inauguration is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans.”

Many writers described the choice as a slap in the face (a phrase I myself used in a column in the Guardian UK), or said they felt they’d been spit on. A headline on The Huffington Post described it as Obama’s first real rift with progressives.

It’s possible that all this anger has taken the Obama team by surprise; perhaps they don’t quite understand it. After all, Warren’s participation is a symbolic concession to conservative evangelicals that costs nothing in policy terms; as a gesture of goodwill and bridge-building, it’s surely superior to, say, a court appointment. In the past, one of Obama’s great strengths has been the way he’s made those who disagree with him feel acknowledged and respected. Besides, Obama clearly wants to convey that, unlike George W. Bush, he doesn’t just want to be the president of those who voted for him. As the Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder wrote on his blog, “[I]gnoring something [sic] like Warren, a mainstream figure who commands the respect of million[s] of Americans, would be foolish. Obama’s message is: Rick Warren is a part of Obama’s America, too.” At a time of serious life-or-death crises throughout the country, maybe all the sturm and drang over symbolism seems a bit silly to Obama insiders.

Yet this is symbolism with real-world consequences and concrete implications. First of all, it reifies the image that Warren has been assiduously constructing for himself as “America’s Pastor,” a post-partisan and benevolent figure with a quasi-official role atop the nation’s civic life. When it comes to his public persona, Warren is something of a magician. He has convinced much of the media and many influential Democrats that he represents a new, more centrist breed of evangelical with a broader agenda than the old religious right. This is, in many ways, deceptive. Yes, Warren has done a lot of work on AIDS in Africa, but he supports the same types of destructive, abstinence-only policies as the Bush administration. One of his protegés, Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, has been a major force in moving that country away from its lifesaving safer-sex programs. He’s been known to burn condoms at Makerere University, the prestigious school in Uganda’s capital, and in his Pentecostal services, marked by much sobbing and speaking in tongues, he offers the promise of faith healing to his desperate congregants, a particularly cruel ruse in a country ravaged by HIV.

The truth is that the primary difference between Warren and, say, James Dobson is the former’s penchant for Hawaiian shirts. Warren compares abortion to the Holocaust, gay marriage to pedophilia and incest, and social gospel Christians as “closet Marxists.” He doesn’t believe in evolution. He has won plaudits from some journalists for his honesty in forthrightly admitting that he believes that Jews are going to hell, but even if one sees such candor is a virtue, the underlying conviction hardly qualifies him as an ecumenical peacemaker. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Warren himself described his differences with Dobson as “mainly a matter of tone,” and was unable to come up with a theological issue on which they disagree.

If Democrats collaborate in positioning Warren as the centrist alternative to the religious right, they consign vast numbers of people, including many of the party’s most dedicated supporters, to the fringe. “It does strengthen Warren as kind of a new Billy Graham figure,” says the Reverend Dan Schultz, a United Church of Christ pastor and the founder of the progressive religious blog Street Prophets. That has especial relevance for Warren’s role in Africa, where a very conservative kind of evangelical Christianity is exploding, bringing with it virulently anti-gay politics. “What I have heard is that it will help Warren overseas,” Schultz says of Warren’s role in the inauguration. “He’s big into work in Africa. This will give him a lot of clout over there. Part of the reason this is kind of insulting for me is that Warren has supported some pretty awful people in Africa, including people who think homosexuals should be jailed.”

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.

“This is not a gay issue, this is not about abortion, it’s about every aspect of sexual equality and dignity,” says the feminist writer and philosopher Linda Hirshman. “This is about every woman who supported the president-elect, not just the gay ones and not just the ones needing abortions.” After all, Warren is not just anti-abortion—he is anti-egalitarian. A page on his Web site Pastors.com, a resource for his fellow Christian leaders, features a woman named Beth Moore explaining and even celebrating the necessity of wifely submission. “God granted women a measure of freedom in submission that we can learn to enjoy,” she explains. “It is a relief to know that as a wife and mother I am not totally responsible for my family. I have a husband to look to for counsel and direction. I can rely on his toughness when I am too soft and his logic when I am too emotional.”

The point is not that Obama believes this stuff, or even that he should only surround himself with liberal spiritual advisers. But his inauguration is supposed to be a celebration of concord, of transcendence of the divisive culture war politics of the last eight years. By choosing Warren, he is suggesting that Warren’s positions on gay people, women and Jews aren’t really that bad, and that he can be a unifying force in American life. Whether Obama intends to or not, he’s pulling a Sister Souljah on some of his most ardent backers, writing them out of the American mainstream at precisely the time when, thanks to his election, they were so dearly hoping to reenter it.

Now, many are trying to get Obama to drop Warren. The comments on Change.gov, the Obama transition Web site, are full of heartbreak and disenchantment. At midday on Thursday, the very first of them read:

Saddened, betrayed, disappointed—I have to echo the comments of so many here. I feel a real loss this morning as I take in this news about Warren. Mr. Obama, I had such hope. On the night of your election, I waited anxiously and ultimately celebrated with a group of family and friends of all backgrounds and orientations. We felt that finally, people like us, people of intellect, creativity, and thoughtfulness, had a real voice again. If this is an example of what we can expect from your administration, then you made a fool of me.

Jettisoning Warren might assuage such feelings, but it would carry real political dangers, reinforcing the narrative that Democrats are hostile to religion. Warren would appear as a martyr to the unreasonable, godless left. “It keys into that narrative that progressives don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to religion, and they don’t really like it,” says Schultz. Besides, he adds, “Americans tend to think of these things as very personal decisions, and they don’t like people coming between themselves and their pastors. That’s why the whole controversy with Jeremiah Wright didn’t take off. People thought, whatever we think about Jeremiah Wright, he is Obama’s pastor and that it is his right.”

At this point, then, the best hope may be that the fusillades of outrage get through. Obama is sending a message of respect and conciliation to those who oppose gay rights, women’s rights and secularism more broadly. Ordinarily such a master of empathy, he needs to find a way to make social progressives feel understood and included as well. Insulting your supporters to win the support of your opponents is no way to build unity.