Obama's decision to invite Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration has sparked heated debate. Many GLBT activists and other liberals oppose the invitation because Warren has made negative comments concerning gay rights and abortion.
During one interview, Warren likened same-sex marriage to incest, statutory rape, and polygamy. He also compared abortion to the Holocaust. Warren's participation in the inauguration has angered liberals who find his views antithetical to the change they seek through Obama.
Warren, Proposition 8 and GLBT Vulnerability
Warren was an outspoken supporter of Proposition 8, a recently enacted amendment to the California constitution that defines marriage in heterosexual terms. The passage of Proposition 8 caused a lot of angst among GLBT activists, many of whom naively believed the measure would fail given the overwhelming support for Obama in the state.
Proposition 8 reverses a ruling of the California Supreme Court which held that prohibiting same-sex marriage violates the state constitution. Consequently, GLBT people feel particularly stung because a majority of California voters callously decided to deprive them of newly obtained and hard-fought rights.
Viewed in light of this recent history, Obama's inclusion of Warren in his inauguration has probably generated more outrage than it would have normally caused. To many GLBT people, Warren represents the painful status quo, not the progress that Obama has so frequently promised.
Obama's Thousand Points of Light
Obama and his supporters have pushed back against his critics. Obama defends the inclusion of Warren in the inauguration as part of his effort to reach across the aisle and include all voices at the table:
I've . . . said . . . that it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues. . . .[W]e're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere . . . where we can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.Although Obama's explanation sounds like an amicable gesture, his public disassociation from Reverend Wright, his controversial minister of 20 years, undermines the credibility of his professed tolerance for "noisy and opinionated" viewpoints. Granted, he was a longtime member of Wright's church, but once Wright became a political liability, Obama let him go.
During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that's how it should be, because that's what America's about. That's part of the magic of this country, is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated.
But even assuming the sincerity of Obama's comments, Warren's participation in the inauguration does not enhance the "diversity" of viewpoints because, stripped of their more colorful elements (e.g., comparing same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia) Warren's comments represent mainstream perspectives on gay rights -- including those views that Obama himself embraces.
Same-Sex Marriage and Popular Opinion: Warren's Views Already at the Table
Although Obama defeated John McCain by a 20-point margin in California, a slight majority of voters in the state cast votes in favor of Proposition 8. Outside of California, however, the public strongly disagrees with same-sex marriage; a growing number, however, favor other measures such as "civil unions."
A CBS poll released in June finds that only 30 percent of Americans favor legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Another 28 percent favor "civil unions," while 36 percent oppose any legal recognition of same-sex intimate relationships. The poll shows the greatest level of support for same-sex marriage since 2004 when CBS began surveying public opinion on this issue. The paltry number of Americans who endorse same-sex marriage actually represents an improvement over the recent past.
Public opinion on this subject varies slightly with political party affiliation, but strong majorities of both major parties oppose same-sex marriage. The poll finds that only 36 percent of Democrats and 14 percent of Republicans support the legalization of same-sex marriage. Similarly, only 34 percent of independent voters support same-sex marriage. Other major polling data confirm these results
Given the results of public opinion polls, it should not surprise readers that no major presidential candidate supported same-sex marriage. Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and all of the GOP candidates stated their opposition to same-sex marriage, although the Democrats supported civil unions. Advocates of Proposition 8 made robocalls that used Obama's public statements expressing his religious opposition to same-sex marriage. Remarkably, Obama has stated that he opposes same-sex marriage and laws like Proposition 8 that ban same-sex marriage.
Obama, Warren, and the vast majority of Americans -- Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike -- all oppose the legalization of same-sex marriage. Accordingly, Warren's participation in the inauguration does not represent political diversity or a noble effort to reach across the political divide as Obama and his supporters claim. Warren represents mainstream discriminatory viewpoints, rather than outsider perspectives. With Warren and Obama united on same-sex marriage, Warren cannot represent difference. He does differ from Obama on choice, but GLBT protests prompted Obama's defense of Warren.
The True Diversity: Reverend Joseph Lowery
By all accounts Joseph Lowery is a champion of civil rights with a very long history in the struggle for justice. Lowery will deliver the benediction at Obama's inauguration. Obama has cited to Lowery as proof that he seeks a diversity of views. In other words, Lowery offers a counter balance to Warren.
Although Lowery is an antidote to Warren in many ways, his support for same-sex marriage remains unclear. Most websites have simply repeated the same description of Lowery -- portraying him as a champion of gay rights and same-sex marriage. The web descriptions validate his support for gay people becoming clergy and their entitlement to legal equality and human rights. But the popular reports on his record do not reveal definitive support for same-sex marriage. Here is the full quotation that informs most of the reporting on this issue:
And in 2004, he told ABC News he supported same sex marriage: "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. And I can't take that away from anybody."This comment does not establish Lowery's unequivocal support for same-sex marriage. Obama himself advocates equality and human rights but disapproves of same-sex marriage, and Warren says he does not want the law to deny "rights" to people, but he refuses to support the "redefinition" of marriage. Regardless, Lowery has a longer and deeper record of progressive activism than Warren.
Does Lowery's presence neutralize Warren?
Many of Obama's supporters have argued that Lowery's presence should neutralize liberal concerns over Warren. Although I believe that Lowery's participation certainly helps to stabilize things, the assertion that the two men's participation in the inauguration will create a politically neutral result is not without complications.
Some harms are so great that ordinary mitigating gestures cannot remedy them. Because most of the country, including Obama, oppose same-sex marriage, Lowery's presence alone cannot counteract GLBT fear of majoritarian discrimination. Furthermore, Warren's comments go beyond typical opposition to same-sex marriage. Relying upon pernicious anti-gay stereotypes, Warren links gay relationships to incest, polygamy and pedophilia. The embrace of such deeply homophobic stereotypes probably injures GLBT people more than mere political or religious opposition to same-sex marriage. It is hard to imagine Lowery counteracting the negative effects of Warren's words.
Also, the recent bruising GLBT people received from the passage of Proposition 8 means that Warren's participation will stoke their sense of political vulnerability. Because Obama shares Warren's position on the subject, many gays and lesbians now fear that he will abandon them on other issues, such as Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Politically, he could probably do so without adverse political consequences, given the pervasive public opposition to or tepid support of gay rights.
From Poetry to Prose: Implementing Policy After Aretha Sings
Although it is highly likely that Warren will remain a participant in the inauguration, this situation has sparked a healthy debate among liberals about how Obama's "change" might look. Gays and lesbians were already mobilized over Proposition 8, and they are even more vigilant as a result of Obama's decision to include Warren in the inauguration. Although many liberals will ultimately accept Obama's desire to have many viewpoints at the table, actual policy decisions will require concrete choices that cannot always reflect the views of all people. If the inclusion of Warren indicates that Obama will adhere to his centrist and safe politics on gay rights and other causes, then his administration will continue to experience conflicts with liberal and progressive advocates.
A Recent Popular Post on Dissenting Justice:
Separate and Unequal Public Schools: "Liberal" Blue States Have Worse Records Than "Dixie"
Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:
Rick Warren versus Don Imus: Obama's Inconsistent Positions
Embracing Uncle Good-But-Homophobic: Why "Reaching Across the Aisle" to Rick Warren Does Not Feel Safe to Everyone
New Obama Drama: GLBT Groups Upset That Rev. Rick Warren Speaking at Inauguration
Reactions to Reverend Rick Warren from My Blogger Buddies
Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Hold Your Breath
Stonewalling on Don't Ask, Don't Tell? No Action Until 2010
Robert Gates as Obama's Secretary of Defense: "More of the Same" for Gay Rights?
Progressives Awaken from Obama-Vegetative State
Would Obama Have Won If He Were Black...and Gay?