Last night, I posted a rather intemperately-worded Facebook status update expressing my anger at President-elect Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. I was angry. I still am, but want to note, more temperately, several things in light of what people posted.
First, we have freedom of religion and freedom of speech in this country, and these are very precious things which I support with every fiber of my being. People have the right to practice their religion in ways I find abhorrent, and to say things that I find unconscionable. I will defend to the death their right to practice their false religion and to say horrible things.
Freedom of religion and freedom of speech do not grant immunity to criticism, as many seem to think. Rick Warren is free to believe that bigotry against gay people is mandated by God and to spread the lies about gay couples that he does (equating them with child molesters, for example). But people of good will are also free to condemn him for these things, and our freedom of religion and freedom of speech guarantee our right to do so. And in exercise of my free religion and free speech, let me say that I do not believe that Rick Warren has a genuine relationship with God, and I believe that he is an enemy of the authentic gospel of Jesus Christ. My saying that does not infringe on his freedom to practice his religion, and I do not think his church should be shut down, or that he should be muzzled in any way. And his freedom to practice his religion also should not extend to taking away my freedom to practice my religion, as Proposition 8 has, by imposing Roman Catholic, Mormon, and Southern Baptist beliefs on marriage on my church and other religious groups, such as the United Church of Christ, the Unitarian Universalist Association, and Reform and Reconstructionist Judaism, which do not share those beliefs but whose marriages may not be recognized by the state.
But the point of my post was not to criticize Rick Warren, but rather to criticize President-elect Obama for asking him to give the invocation at his inauguration. By asking him to do so, Obama is implicitly endorsing Warren’s agenda of denying gay people civil rights. As someone who claims to support inclusive values and relative equality for gay people (he does not support full equality since he opposes same-sex marriage), this is a very bad move that troubles me and makes me worry that his support will be mostly rhetorical. I hope I’m wrong, and his term of office may be the flowering of civil rights for gay people on the federal level. But Bill Clinton ran a very inclusive campaign, and he did more to eliminate civil rights for gay people on the federal level than any other president in US history, signing the so-called Defense of Marriage Act into law and establishing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, wasting millions of tax dollars to expel gay soldiers from the military. And although George W. Bush was in most respects a horrible president and certainly waged a rhetorical war against gay people with his support of a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage and probably contributed greatly to the passage of many state anti-gay constitutional amendments, he actually signed the most pro-gay law ever passed on the federal level, the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which allows gay couples to inherit tax-deferred annuities without the draconian penalties once assessed. (The law does not specifically mention gay couples, but in fact extends this provision beyond civilly-married spouses to any person – and that is the key to Republican support for gay civil rights – as long as it only benefits gay people as a by-product and not as the primary purpose of the law, they are willing to support it.) So I don’t actually take the words of politicians very seriously, only their actions.
Some think that he is being “inclusive” by including Rick Warren, reaching out to conservative Christians – but I think if we compare it to other historically disadvantaged groups, this analogy falls apart. If a white president were to ask a minister who supported segregation and the denial of civil rights to black people to give an invocation, no one would talk about including racists – they would quite rightly denounce this move. But intolerance of gay people is still tolerated in ways that intolerance of other groups is not. And that is troubling. (And before anyone starts talking about how intolerance of homosexuality is supported by historic religious beliefs while racism is not, let me point out that the denomination to which Rick Warren belongs and in which I was raised, the Southern Baptist Convention, split from the Northern Baptists [now the American Baptists] specifically to teach that the Bible condones race-based slavery. My parents – my father a Southern Baptist minister -- believed and attempted to teach me as a child that inter-racial marriage is wrong and against biblical values.) By inviting this man to pray at his inauguration and implicitly condoning his successful attempt to take away my civil rights and those of other gay Americans, he is sending a message of exclusion and intolerance.
Not a good way to start his presidency, and a serious blot on what ought to be a celebration of a milestone of inclusion, the inauguration of the first African American president.