Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New Obama Drama: GLBT Groups Upset That Rev. Rick Warren Speaking at Inauguration

During the brief post-election season, critics have had many opportunities to problematize Obama's leftist credentials. Progressives, seemingly awakening from an Obama-Vegetative State, have complained about his Cabinet choices, his shifting position on war, and his decision to delay raising taxes on the wealthy and upon oil companies. In the latest progressive flap, GLBT rights groups are upset with Obama's decision to have Reverend Rick Warren perform the invocation at his inauguration ceremony.

Warren's conservative views on gay rights (and other issues) should alarm progressives. For example, he is an outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, and he campaigned in favor of California Proposition 8 (a state constitutional amendment that defines marriage in heterosexual terms). When asked to explain his objection to same-sex marriage during an interview, Warren responded that he also opposes incestuous marriage, marriage between adults and children, and polygamy. He later said that he views all of these "relationships," including same-sex marriage, as moral equivalents.

The Human Rights Campaign, the nation's largest advocate for gay and lesbian rights, has sent an "open letter" to Obama, complaining about Warren speaking at the inauguration. Ironically, in 2006, many members of Warren's conservative congregation criticized his decision to invite Obama to speak at the church where he serves as a minister. Specifically, congregants disagreed with Obama's pro-choice voting record.

My Analysis

There are a few points I want to make about this issue. First, although I have condemned the unseemly desire of the public to project itself into the private religious lives of political candidates, this case is distinguishable. This situation does not represent a moment where the public has unnecessarily scrutinized Obama's private religious beliefs. Instead, Obama himself has made his religious practice public (to the extent that selecting a minister to participate in the inauguration constitutes "religious practice") and therefore subject to public scrutiny.

If you think I am "waffling," then so be it. Besides, I am analyzing the issue primarily from a political perspective. At the end of the day, I am far more interested in how Obama views GLBT rights issues, not in whom he chooses to speak at the inauguration. Unfortunately, I am already skeptical about his support for gay rights.

Second (here is the political analysis), I am not sure why Obama believes this is a good move politically. Although it is certainly consistent with his "reaching across the aisle" philosophy, many GLBT people are already suspicious of his support. The doubting started during the Democratic primaries, when he campaigned with "ex-gay" gospel singer Donnie McClurkin. Also, it has become increasingly clear that repealing Don't Ask, Don't Tell will not become a priority until late in his presidency, if at all (see my analysis here, here, and here). Furthermore, because Warren played such a visible role in the defeat of same-sex marriage in California, his inclusion in the inauguration ceremony will only exacerbate the perceived vulnerability of GLBT people.

Finally, I hate to say it (not really), but "I told you so." GLBT activists remained silent while all of the leading Democratic candidates, including Obama, took moderate-to-conservative positions on sexual orientation issues, especially same-sex marriage. Obama and Warren have both stated that they oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds. It seems more than a little inconsistent for HRC to condemn Warren's presence at the inauguration when his views on the morality of same-sex marriage are materially indistinct from Obama's. In fact, Obama's opposition should bother HRC even more than Warren's because Obama occupies the highest position of political power in the country, while Warren is simply a minister who lacks the power to promulgate public policy. If the Left wanted to engage in critical inquiry concerning Obama and sexuality, it should have done so at a much earlier point. Instead, a lot of them simply gave him a pass.

Related Readings on Dissenting Justice:

Rick Warren versus Don Imus: Obama's Inconsistent Positions

The Fallacy of Obama's "Diversity" Defense: Rick Warren's Views Already Have a Place at the Table

Embracing Uncle Good-But-Homophobic: Why "Reaching Across the Aisle" to Rick Warren Does Not Feel Safe to Everyone

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?


Heidi LI said...

While I basically agree that the private religious beliefs of politicians are not relevant to political evaluation of them, you are spot on, Darren, when you say that this matter has nothing to do with Mr. Obama's private religious beliefs. For reasons of historical accident we still have religious figures going through religious rituals at what should be, in my view, secular government related events. So, the choice of a clergyperson to give a benediction says a great deal about a politician's character. By choosing a clergymember whose views are homophobic Mr. Obama is affiliating himself with those views. I know Mr. Obama claims that having other clergy who are not homophobic sort of cancels out the affiliation, but that isn't how it works when it comes to affiliating oneself with haters. There is an ethical asymetry here. Suppose we grant that not everything Strom Thurmond ever did was bad; he was still, in my view, irredeemable, because of the virulence of his racism against blacks. In general Mr. Obama shows an alarming tendency to think that everything is ethically equal - so one can balance keeping Bob Gates in office by making some other appointments of people who opposed the war in Iraq. But that is not how good ethical judgment works. It is not a matter of on the one hand, on the other. Some people ought not be given a prominent platform because their views are noxious. That's Rick Warren.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Heidi - excellent! I completely agree. The more I look at Warren, the less inclined I am to analyze simply the "politics" of the situation. Warren is not simply the "crazy uncle who says weird things." He is antithetical to equality and justice. I respect his right to be antithetical to justice at his church, during interviews, etc. But I do not support his right to taint the inauguration. But like I said - I am already off the boat in terms of glbt rights and this administration. I just wonder how much longer people will cling to false hopes.

Keith Roberts said...

I favor marriage for those who want it, disagree with Warren about the vicious Prop.8 and abortion, and in many ways consider evangelicals like him to be dangerous ideologues. But I disagree with those who would renew the culture wars. Obama has it just right: we should consider what we share in common, as well as where we disagree. Obama's choice of Warren is a generous gesture whose main practical consequence is to make the millions of evangelicals feel more a part of our world. And many have noted that if we cannot be close enough to talk, we cannot persuade. We as a nation without ethnic, religious, or other homogenizing factors cannot succeed unless we look to what we share. As they say, either we hang together or we hang separately.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Well, Keith, evangelicals did not propel Obama to an election victory. Liberals and progressives did. That is undoubtedly the case when you consider the Democratic primaries.

The problem with strictly following a unity pact is that at some point, choices on policy have to take place. And when this happens, someone will feel left out. For example, if Obama has to decide whether or not to push for the repeal of DOMA, to pass ENDA or to get rid of Don't Ask, Don't Tell, this will not have uniform support. Someone will get left out. Right now, GLBT people are being asked to "sacrifice" for the greater good. I imagine that another group will face that demand later.

Also, there are any number of people he could have invited to show how open he is to the other side. He could have picked a KKK or anti-sexist individual. He could have picked Farakhan. These choices would have generated anger somewhere else. I would love to see how the analysis would differ in those situations. As long as the majority are not made to feel uncomfortable with the choice, then the majority can demand that GLBT people (and other minorities) back down; and they can easily praise the choice as a wonderful "gesture." But if the majority were being threatened, the arguments would likely differ.

Keith Roberts said...

Darren, I must say that your answer to my comment rather misses the point I was making! (not an unusual form of Yalie response to a Harvard point). Of course the evangelicals didn't support Obama; if they had, his gesture with Warren would be ridiculous. And yes, he could and must make other controversial choices too. But come on: first, the Pres has nothing to do with marriage laws; second, we both know that Obama is a totally decent guy who obviously supports GLBT rights, and will work for them where he can; and third, we also know that Warren is a very influential opinion leader, who can really help with other agenda items important to us all. It's not about balancing ethics or triangulation; it's old fashioned ward politics, and without that, we'll get nowhere.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Keith, I don't consider myself a stereotypical "Yalie," but perhaps you are more familiar analyzing people on those terms. I suppose, however, that typical Yale response would have requested that you make you point more precisely. :)

But here's what generated my response. You said: "We should consider what we share in common, as well as where we disagree. Obama's choice of Warren is a generous gesture whose main practical consequence is to make the millions of evangelicals feel more a part of our world. And many have noted that if we cannot be close enough to talk, we cannot persuade."

I stand by my original point that someone will get left out in this "unity" process, particularly when it comes to policy. No amount of "liberal reasoning" will make Warren and people farther to the right of him support a gay rights agenda, and I do not believe that Obama will not teeter too far beyond the middle on these issues either. His words will sound very supportive, but I do not expect much in terms of policy. His philosophy of making everyone feel welcome has failed to work -- even with this purely symbolic moment. When it comes to policy, it will create even more angst.

Although Obama's campaign positions favor gay rights rhetorically - outside of marriage - that means very little if these words do not lead to specific policy or if it translates into policies that do very little to alter the status quo (the more likely route). The Left fell head over heels in love with Obama and failed to listen to the nuance and "space" he placed in his campaign promises. Now they are weeping over his so-called changing position on Iraq and on other issues. As a lawyer -- and perhaps a Yalie -- I refused to fall for the broader rhetoric and paid careful attention to nuance with an eye to the history of social movements and progressive change. Accordingly, I do not share your enthusiasm about what Obama will do with respect to GLBT issues. So long as the majority of the public opposes the extension of a particular right to GLBT people, I do not expect Obama to advocate for that right. I do not say this to criticize Obama. Instead, I just like to have a realistic approach to politics. Consider it more of a sociological analysis.

Finally, I agree that marriage is a for the most part a state-based issue, but it is not entirely so. Federal law distributes benefits to "married" couples in many contexts (social security, etc). DOMA defines marriage in heterosexual terms for purposes of federal regulation. This has great implications for gay people. [Disclaimer: I favor stripping benefits from marriage for the most part.]

If Obama runs with the middle on marriage, I am not counting on him to seek the repeal of DOMA. Even if he tries to have DOMA repealed, this does not mean that he will favor enacting some type of civil unions or same-sex marriage category for the receipt of federal benefits.

In my lifetime I have met a lot of "decent" people who just don't like pushing the envelope. I have sat at the table with them enough to know what makes them tick.

Keith Roberts said...

Yeah, I was joking about the Yale-Harvard thing. I think we are discussing a larger issue: namely, whether "unbundling" of political positions is possible. I remember in 2004, people in my NY apartment building were trying to organize fundraising for a nearby campaign in which our relatively small contribution could make a difference. The best candidate for us was Casey of PA, who opposed the loathsome Santorum in what, at the time, seemed a tight race. A number of "feminists" vehemently objected, however, since Casey opposes abortion. Hence the perfect destroyed the good. These "feminists" could not unbundle their political position, and if every interest group that makes up the Democratic party takes a similar stance, we are lost. That's why I cut Obama some slack on Warren.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Keith - it's precisely the type of orthodox thinking which you condemn that allowed Obama to win the Left in the primaries. Many progressives were so neurotically angry about the political compromises President Clinton made that they bundled the two Clintons together into one pathological "Billary." Also, anyone who voted for the war was portrayed as a lethal dove who would nuke the world out of existence.

I have been criticizing progressive blindness for months now. Check out my recent analysis of the Republic Windows sit-in. I'm sure that didn't win me any friends on the left - and I may have even lost some.

But, started this blog in order to add a dissenting perspective to progressive discourse. I believe that progressives gave Obama a pass during the primaries and failed to listen carefully to his positions. Now they regret it. Generally, I hope to bring critical insight to legal and political issues beyond the election.

But some people mistakenly equate being critical with being dogmatic. But notice, I have not stated what Obama "should" do with respect to Warren. That's his business. But I retain the right to call him out as a moderate who catered to all sides in order to win and who will do what is safe and popular so that he will win again -- even if that means hanging out with someone who can't keep his mind from thinking of incest, polygamy and child rape when he pictures gays in relationships.

Obama is a politician. A few months ago that was a radical thought, even "fighting words." Rev. Wright called him a politician and he publicly severed ties with the minister. The media cheered as the nonpolitician saved his political career by ridding himself of the politically damaging minister. I tried to assess the situation honestly at the time - and all I got in return was shock and awe.

Frankly, I find some of the apologia surrounding Obama and this controversy not only intellectually dishonest but hypocritical. For the last few elections, liberals have bashed the GOP for stopping by Bob Jones U. while campaigning. Liberals recently bashed Bush for moving to an almost all-white neighborhood in Dallas. But Obama not only gets to enroll his kids in one of the most privileged, nearly all-white schools in DC without comment, but his inclusion of a homophobe in his inauguration is now a progressive moment. My head is spinning. I do not criticize Obama for either of these things -- but I think liberals need to own their hypocrisy and move on.

PS: I too was joking on the Yale/Harvard front.

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