Beyond the Surface of Obama’s Choice of Rick Warren

In one of his earliest and most successful attempts to piss off the world and connect Iraq to the 9/11 attacks, Pres. George W. Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil,” and imposed sanctions intended to isolate them. Subsequent Bush-Cheney-Rice “diplomacy” has consisted of further punishing states with which they disagree by refusing to talk to them.

It’s classic Obama to include those with whom he disagrees

To say this policy has been an utter failure for the United States, leaving us with fewer friends in an increasingly polarized world, would be an understatement. Rather than crippling our alleged enemies, Iran and North Korea have only grown more defiant and closer to nuclear armament. And we all know the destruction and loss of life that resulted when Bush decided to halt the now proven United Nations weapons inspection program and invade Iraq instead.

Barack Obama examined the Bush cold shoulder policy and rejected it. He was derided by both Republicans and some Democrats — notably Hillary Clinton — for saying during the debates that he would be willing to talk to our opponents, including leaders of Iran. But history has shown that Obama’s path of holding friends close and enemies closer is wise.

Which brings us to Obama’s invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to provide his inaugural invocation. Gays are appalled that Warren, a man who unapologetically opposes gay marriage, was chosen. Why, they ask, would someone who helped pass anti gay marriage legislation be honored with a spot on this day of triumph for progressives?

As someone who has read both Obama’s autobiography, Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, and his treatise on governing, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, I was less surprised or disturbed by Obama’s pick. It is, in fact, classic Obama to include those with whom he disagrees. What better way to dial down the angst of those on the right who think they are in for four to eight years of godless, socialist anarchy than to co-op Pastor Warren? It’s a move I expect to see repeated over and over during Obama’s presidency, and one that I believe will serve him well.

Unfortunately, it comes at a bad time for American gays, many of whom are still smarting over the California gay marriage reversal. They are turning their backs on Obama, who will likely do more to advance gay civil rights than any other president, or any other recent presidential candidate.

Personally, I’m just glad he didn’t choose someone like Mike Huckabee. Maybe the Huckster was too busy shamelessly promoting his new book or his FOX News show. Whew.

I’ve been asking those on the left, who dislike the Warren pick, for their candidate to deliver the invocation. I’m guessing that Obama was looking for someone a) famous, b) white, c) religious, d) Christian, and e) American, not necessarily in that order, to reassure white folk that Rev. Jeremiah Wright or Louis Farrakhan will be nowhere in the crowd. These criteria obviously aren’t the ones used by those who responded to my request for recommendations:

  • Rev. Edwin Bacon or the Rev. Dr. George Regas of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena
  • Rabbi Michael Lerner
  • Journalist Bill Moyers
  • Epidemiologist Dr. Lawrence Brilliant
  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  • Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr.
  • Dr. Phil
  • Rev. Jim Wallis

Help me out here. Leave your own choice for who should lead the prayer at Obama’s inauguration.


  • Elaine
    December 21, 2008 - 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Is a presidential inauguration a federal function? Is the government of the United States supposed to be secular? Then why have any prayers at all? Is everyone afraid the sky will fall on us if we don’t go through the motions? I think it’s time we grew up as a nation, but it’s not going to happen in my lifetime. Pity.

    My choice? Dan Barker – former Pentecostal minister, author of “Losing Faith in Faith” and “Godless,” and co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, of which I am a member.

  • Elaine
    December 22, 2008 - 1:01 am | Permalink

    I meant to add to my original post that I felt we as a nation had been “Rick-Rolled” last summer when both Obama and McCain submitted to highly improper questioning by His Self-Righteousness Warren. Well, surprise, surprise, surprise! We’ve been Rick-Rolled again! Might as well just click over to YouTube and listen to that stupid song till January 20th or 21st. What a shame.

  • Doug Jambard-Sweet
    December 22, 2008 - 6:01 am | Permalink

    How about Reverend Richard Cizik, evangelical minister leading the call for evangelicals to address global warming as an environmental stewardship issue? – a much smarter choice.

  • December 22, 2008 - 7:25 am | Permalink

    I understand the strategy. It’s the execution of it that is Obama’s first big mistake. Inviting Rick Warren, who is as proud of his homophobia as Jerry Falwell was, and who is perhaps the most prominent California-based supporter of Prop 8, was ill-considered and comes off as not a little cruel.

    For one thing, Obama and Warren are simpatico on the issue of gay marriage. They both oppose it, and both support civil unions. Compounding this is Obama’s public silence on Prop 8, both before and since the election. The fact that millions of Californians lost their civil rights has not warranted a comment from their president-elect.

    Obama’s strategy was to invite one of his opponents — someone he disagreed with, like, say, Sean Hannity or David Duke — to speak. Instead, he has elevated an outspoken enemy of gay civil rights, an issue where Obama’s own record is iffy. He scared the bejesus out of millions of gay Dems by palling around with ex-gays in South Carolina last fall. He never mentioned gay rights voluntarily during the campaign, only ever discussed it when questioned about it in a debate — and he made zero policy proposals on this issue during his legislative career. Not one. Not only is the Warren invitation his first major gaffe, his statement that he is a “fierce advocate” of gay rights is his first significant post-election false statement.

    The irony is, based on Obama’s record, most gay political junkies probably expected him to do next to nothing on gay rights. (There’s word he might approve rescinding Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but polls are solidly behind ditching the policy.) Still, we had a reasonable expectation that he would do no harm.

    But what makes this decision a mistake of historical proportions is not the hurt feelings of gay Democrats, it’s the fact that he’s made one of America’s preeminent bigots the opening act for what otherwise should have been an inauguration celebrating progress away from bigotry. This will be a permanent stain on Obama’s presidency, and it’s something all his supporters — the people who worked so hard for “change” — should object to.

    In politics as in life, actions speak louder than words, and, in California at least, the darkest, most cynical view is that Obama is giving Prop 8’s supporters a victory lap. I think, despite Obama’s poor record, we should give him the benefit of the doubt that he simply didn’t think that part through. Still, in inviting Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration, Obama has sent a message that gay Democrats have heard before from their leaders: Drop dead.

  • Garryinnola
    December 22, 2008 - 11:39 am | Permalink

    Personally I don’t care who gives the “invocation” at Obama’s inauguration. But my objection to Rick Warren has more to do with his attempt at equating same-sex relationships to pedophilia & incest. The Religious Right has attempted to do this repeatedly and I’m more concerned with the fact that Warren did the same than I am with his opposition to same-sex marriage. Personally I think that civils unions, complete with all the benefits of marriage might be a more realistic goal for gays to pursue. Polls repeatedly show that there is much more support for and much less objection to civil unions than “marriage”.

  • December 22, 2008 - 12:44 pm | Permalink

    As you say, I think the gay populace will find an Obama presidency will likely do more to advance gay civil rights than any other president, or any other recent presidential candidate. As I’ve previously suggested, it might be time for the gay population offended by this to try to change things in a different manner than their opposition does (i.e. fighting, kicking, demanding, dividing)…try a page from Ghandi and win those on the ‘margin’ over with love instead and let them learn why they’ve been wrong about you.

    Personally, I’d liked to have seen Muhammad Ali or Colin Powell give some kind of invocation…as Elaine notes above, why does it have to be a traditional religious group representative?

    December 22, 2008 - 3:17 pm | Permalink

    Why not Jim Wallis, who fit all the criteria except notoriety/fame — of the TV megachurch celebrity sort.
    Wallis and Sojourner magazine have been the soft-spoken cutting edge of social-issues-oriented evangelicals. Why marginalize the rising tide of moderate and progressive evangelicals in favor of the simplistic showmen?

    Granted Rick Warren has positioned himself between the hardshell, rock-ribbed Republican revalationaries and the out-stretched hand of the Democratic nominee. But Wallis, very much an outreacher himself, would be a better symbol, if less of a celebrity.

    Warren may have ambitions to play Billy Graham to the new administration. But the myriad of non-evangelicals who voted for Obama would be a lot more comfortable with a deeper, more nuanced person, or better yet, spectrum of clerics. Warren as just one of a line-up would be fine.

    Even at the inauguration, why not a rainbow of invocators — southern evangelical, northern mainstream Protestant (Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, etc), Catholic, reformed Jewish and modern Muslim? Divide up the time five ways.

    The Warren choice will be universally perceived as pure politics, not as genuinely ecumenical.

  • Billy
    December 22, 2008 - 5:02 pm | Permalink

    I oppose gay marriage, but would never be out equating it with pedophilia or incest. Rev. Warren went too far off the reservation with that comment, pulling in examples that are not appropriate for this discussion. But Rich Warren stuck his neck out for someone his congregation does not like, and invited him there TWICE. Barack Obama is not endorsing any of Rick Warren’s positions, but he is saying there is a place at the table for those who feel as Rick Warren does, if only to discuss the issues that divide us.

    What I see from the left is winner take all, the right can go to hell. Now who is being the bigot? the leader of the free world is being gracious in victory. I also don’t recall Obama endorsing gay marriage, either, only says he is a champion for gay rights. Have the marriage supporters even bothered to ask Obama how he feels on this issue?

  • December 23, 2008 - 9:27 am | Permalink

    Jon, I’m not sure where you’re getting the zero figure for Obama’s policy proposals during his legislative career concerning gay rights. Obama sponsored legislation in the Illinois senate to ban employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, and voted in favor of a ban on housing and public accommodation discrimination based on sexual orientation. He voted against the Federal Marriage Amendment (“one man, one woman”) in 2006, wants to repeal DOMA, and helped pass hate crime legislation as a state senator that included sexual orientation. He has also gone on record in support of gay adoption and for rescinding Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

  • December 23, 2008 - 10:14 am | Permalink

    Trish: He co-sponsored the bill in Illinois, which means it was someone else’s bill and he signed on. (It didn’t pass.) Sponsoring and voting for bills is not the same as developing policy proposals. I’m talking about the heavy lifting of recognizing the injustice, crafting legislation, strong-arming and glad-handing other legislators into voting for it. Yes, he has been generally consistent in “me too” political efforts on gay rights — with votes and signing on as a sponsor — but he has never put himself on the line, like Ted Kennedy did with ENDA, for example, on these issues.

    My sense is that the collective gay political class expects very little from Obama. Certainly, times have changed from the Clinton years when even a gay appointee (other than the AIDS czar) was controversial, so we expect him to appoint out people without comment, as he has done. And, unlike Bush, he won’t stop pro-gay legislation and he may even sign some of the bills, if they make it to his desk. (We’ll see.) But there’s no outright sign that his heart is with us — that he cares — and, as we saw in his silence on Prop 8, he rightly fears retribution from the right if he is too supportive. That’s fine. We get it.

    But elevating Warren is harmful because Warren’s rhetoric contributes to the culture of bigotry and violence toward gays. I’m doubt liberals would be so sanguine if Obama had chosen a true opponent — Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh, for example — to speak, or that conservatives would be so dismissive of our outrage if he’d chosen Jeremiah Wright.

    I guess this is one of those issues in which where you stand depends on where you sit.

  • December 23, 2008 - 10:51 am | Permalink

    There is no doubt that how you view Obama’s record depends on where you sit. For example, if you were a right-winger, you’d be ready to tar and feather to him for his positions and record on gay rights.

    I think the bigger question, and what I meant to get at with this post, is what do we want? Do we want Warren and his followers to see and appreciate our POV or do we want to punish them for where they have been so far by pushing them even further away? Do we want more of what we’ve had or are we ready to start talking to each other again? Warren seems inclined, based on his past invitations to Obama to address Saddleback and removing anti-gay people rhetoric from the church’s web site, to at least start to listen. Can we stop shouting at him now?

  • December 23, 2008 - 11:10 am | Permalink

    Um, no. They need to be pushed back to the fringes where they belong. They view appeasement as weakness. Their objective, per Karl Rove, is total domination; conversely, the only push-back they understand is total vanquishment a la Joe McCarthy or Herbert Hoover. If we give them an inch, they will take a mile, a la Cheney as Nixon redux.

    Liberals’ unceasing need to win conservatives’ approval is not “change.” It is the definition of Clintonism and so a one-line description of the political history of the last 28 years. Making nice to them now will just repeat the cycle. It simply does not work.

    Rick Warren does not deserve to clean Obama’s shoes. Putting him on the stage does irreparable harm, advances nothing.

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  • Elaine
    December 25, 2008 - 11:49 pm | Permalink

    I still want to know WHY invoking an imaginary friend is necessary when installing any federal officer. Is it not a violation of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment of our constitution?

    Were there “invocations” when the Adamses (Pere and Fils), Jefferson, Madison, et al were inaugurated? Does anybody know for certain? I certainly don’t, but I can’t imagine Thomas Jefferson or James Madison holding still for any Christian prayers at their inaugurals. They were at the very most deists, not theists, and went to great lengths to make sure that our Constitution was strictly secular. (John Adams and John Quincy Adams were Unitarians…and so is Mike Gravel. He was my first choice during the primaries.)


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