Obama, Pastor Warren, and the Civil Society

Full disclosure of my position on gay rights and gay marriage: I support both, strongly. I strongly disagree with anyone who would deprive an American citizen of full and equal rights, regardless of sexual preference, and I would vote in favor, if I could, of all 50 states allowing same-sex marriages. There are enough divorces and loveless marriages in this country. If there is a loving relationship and the couple wishes for a marriage certificate as testimony to their commitment to each other, regardless of whether they are heterosexual or same-sex, I am strongly in favor of that.

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., has views on gays and gay marriage that are the extreme opposite from mine. Even more uncomfortably for me, Pastor Warren would impose his views on others — for example, by supporting Proposition 8 in California, passed by a small majority of Californians last November, which would ban gay marriage in the Golden State.

Recently, he seemed to go further — in the same sentence, he mentioned his opposition to gay marriage as well as “having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage ... [and] an older guy marrying a child.”

That sentence was insensitive, hurtful and unfortunate. But the fact is, it has been misrepresented by gay-rights critics that the pastor compared gay marriage to incest and pedophilia. That misleading charge spread rapidly across the Internet. As the words quoted above show, Pastor Warren was referring to marriage — not to the criminal and widely recognized heinous sexual wrongdoing of incest and pedophilia. The critics of Pastor Warren who misrepresent what Pastor Warren actually said do their cause no good.

But to the issue at hand: My hat is off to President-elect Barack Obama for inviting Pastor Warren to give the invocation at the Inaugural ceremony on Jan. 20 — and the same to Pastor Warren for accepting the invitation. Both of them are now subject to attacks for the invitation, the offer and acceptance, from their respective purist bases on the left and right.

My view: Standing up to their bases and holding to the view that a civil society must allow for disagreement and debate without demonization is important. No, not just important: After the last couple of decades of cancerous “gotcha” politics of personal destruction, it is vital to our future.

Regarding the president-elect, Barack Obama has proven to me over a long period of time, even more so in the weeks since the election, that he is a man who says what he means and means what he says. Barack Obama has shown himself to be a progressive Democrat who is sometimes prepared to take positions that counter the views of his most purist base — that is, when he is moved by conviction to do so. This is the definition of political courage made most famous by then-Sen. John F. Kennedy when he authored Profiles in Courage.

More importantly to me, Barack Obama has steadfastly lived up to his promises from the beginning of his campaign and just recently repeated when he explained his selection of Pastor Warren to deliver the Inaugural invocation:

“It is important for Americans to come together, even though we may have disappointments on certain social issues. ... That dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign’s been all about — that we’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere when we … can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans.”

And Rick Warren, despite his sincere, religiously based convictions that same-sex relations and marriage are morally wrong, has contributed millions to gays and other people suffering from AIDS and other causes helping the poor and the suffering. He is a good and decent man. And on this occasion in particular, he too has shown the courage to stand up to his base — by participating in (and thus blessing) the Inauguration of a pro-choice, pro-stem cell research, pro-gay rights president, to the consternation and displeasure of many religious-right conservatives.

Closing the ceremony will be the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, a legendary partner and colleague of Dr. Martin Luther King, a leader in the civil rights and equal rights movements, with whom Pastor Warren and many religious conservatives also strongly disagree.

And then, I hope that those in the crowd from the gay-rights community who were understandably disappointed by the choice of Pastor Warren, and those from the religious right understandably disappointed by Pastor Warren’s acceptance of the invitation, will be joining hands — physically and spiritually — in celebrating this historic Inauguration.

If and when this happens, our new president will have taken the first and important steps of bringing us together into a new civil society. He will have done what former President Clinton wished could be done when he said, during a June 2004 White House ceremony unveiling his and former first lady Hillary Clinton’s official portraits:

“You know, most of the people I’ve known in this business, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, were good people, honest people, and they did what they thought was right. And I hope that I’ll live long enough to see American politics return to vigorous debates where we argue who’s right and wrong, not who’s good and bad.”

That is the essence of the Civil Society in the new era of Barack Obama as our 44th president of the United States.


This article appeared in The Washington Times on Monday, Dec. 22, 2008.