Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama and Warren Controversy

Some people were worried when Obama and McCain appeared at Saddleback Church for their first public meeting on the same stage months ago during the Presidential seemed then mostly due to separation of church and state issues. Now people are upset that Warren is offering a prayer at Obama's inauguration...not because of separation of church and state issues (there is ALWAYS a prayer at these events), but because of Warren's positions on abortion and same-sex marriage. While I personally differ with Warren on these issues also, there are a few things to make clear. Warren is NOT like Dobson or other evangelical leaders. He does not incite divisiveness in the way they do, although he's made some rather crude analogies vis-a-vis gay marriage lately. He does try to create coalitions with people who differ with him on many issues: thus he has been effective working on issues of poverty and HIV/AIDS with people who oppose him on other social issues. Although he does not support gay marriage, he did not energize his media machinery to pour support into Proposition 8 either (and he lives in California)--on the other hand, his prominent position in making certain statements surely has an effect. He also, unlike other people like Dobson (the old guard religious right in general), does support hospital visitation rights, etc., for same-sex couples...although this comes across as a second-rate consolation prize for marriage, separate and unequal.

Oh, by the way, recall Obama's position on gay marriage during the election? Anyone? It actually isn't far off from this (at least on the surface). It was one of the things that he and McCain agreed on.

Nonetheless, here is a full article from the NYTimes about it:

December 20, 2008
Obama’s Choice of Pastor Creates Furor
CHICAGO — With his choice of the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama has found himself enmeshed in a new controversy involving a pastor, facing criticism this time from liberal and gay rights groups outraged at the idea of including the evangelical pastor at a Democratic celebration.

Mr. Obama’s forceful defense of Mr. Warren, the author of “The Purpose Driven Life,” has signaled an intent to continue his campaign’s effort to woo even theologically conservative Christians. As his advisers field scores of calls from Democrats angry because Mr. Warren is an outspoken opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, Mr. Obama has insisted that a range of viewpoints be expressed at the inauguration festivities next month in Washington.

“That’s part of the magic of this country, is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated,” Mr. Obama said, speaking to reporters here this week. He added, “That’s hopefully going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration.”

The growing alliance of Mr. Obama and Mr. Warren — each of the two publicly refers to the other as “friend” — suggests that Mr. Obama hopes to capitalize on the signs of potential generational and political divisions within the evangelical Christian flock. For his part, Mr. Warren is increasingly being spoken of as a kind of minister to the nation, a status previously occupied by the Rev. Billy Graham.

V. Gene Robinson, the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, whose consecration caused a painful divide in his church because he is openly gay, said that when he heard about the selection of Mr. Warren, “it was like a slap in the face.”

Bishop Robinson had been an early public endorser of Mr. Obama’s candidacy, and said he had helped serve as a liaison between the campaign and the gay community. He said he had called officials who work for Mr. Obama to share his dismay, and been told that Mr. Obama was trying to reach out to conservatives and give everybody a seat at the table.

“I’m all for Rick Warren being at the table,” Bishop Robinson said, “but we’re not talking about a discussion, we’re talking about putting someone up front and center at what will be the most watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know.”

It is not Mr. Obama’s first brush with trouble at the intersection of religion and politics. In his presidential campaign, he struggled with how to handle his longtime Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose sermons on race and patriotism stirred outrage. After initially defending him, Mr. Obama ultimately broke ties with Mr. Wright and the church.

Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for the Obama inauguration, said Friday that including Mr. Warren was not a decision based on politics. Ms. Douglass said Mr. Obama and his team had not second-guessed the decision to invite him, despite the controversy.

“This is a guy with whom he has found common ground on issues such as fighting for social justice on behalf of the poor, people who have H.I.V./AIDS,” Ms. Douglass said. “There are many areas where they do agree and have had a very productive discussion.”

Among Christian conservatives, reaction to Mr. Warren’s acceptance of the invitation to deliver a marquee prayer at Mr. Obama’s inauguration was subdued or supportive, perhaps in part because few Christian leaders are inclined to publicly criticize someone with enormous popularity among American Protestants of all stripes.

Some politically minded Christian conservatives took a cynical view of Mr. Obama’s motivations.

“In my view, the new president is trying to exploit Warren,” Gary L. Bauer, the Christian conservative organizer and former Republican presidential candidate, wrote on Friday in an e-mail newsletter. He urged supporters not to take Mr. Warren’s role as an endorsement, calling attention to Mr. Obama’s distance from the pastor on social issues.

John Green, a political scientist at the University of Akron who studies religion and politics, saw the invitation to Mr. Warren as a sign that Mr. Obama planned to keep courting religious conservatives as he tried to build a coalition behind his agenda to govern.

“This shows Obama’s pragmatism,” Mr. Green said, noting that Mr. Obama was in a sense paying Mr. Warren back for his signs of support during the campaign, including an invitation to Mr. Warren’s Saddleback Church that reverberated through the evangelical world.

The Rev. Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College, said that he and Mr. Warren were friends, but they disagree on issues like gay marriage and abortion. And yet, he said, “I think it is a terrible mistake for anyone to view Rick Warren as being in the same category as James Dobson or Chuck Colson,” who are among the most prominent leaders of the religious right.

“He’s a new breed,” said Father Balmer, a longtime scholar of American evangelicals, who recently became rector of an Episcopal church.

He said that unlike many other evangelical pastors, Mr. Warren had not devoted as much time or effort in support of Proposition 8, a measure on the California ballot in November that amended the State Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

In a recent interview with the Web site Beliefnet, Mr. Warren said that allowing same-sex couples to marry was no different from allowing a brother and sister to marry.

But he also said that same-sex marriage was less of a threat to the American family than divorce. Mr. Warren said that he supported partnership rights for gay people, including insurance coverage and hospital visitation rights, a position that is not widely accepted among evangelical conservatives.

Richard Socarides, who was a special assistant to President Bill Clinton in charge of gay and lesbian policies, said the disappointment among gay-rights supporters over Proposition 8 made Mr. Obama’s decision to invite Mr. Warren more difficult to understand. He called it a “serious miscalculation that will anger a lot of people and will be hard to undo.”

“It’s not like he’s introducing Obama at some campaign rally in the South,” Mr. Socarides said. “He’s been given this very prominent, central role in the ceremony which is supposed to usher in a new civil rights era.”

Jeff Zeleny reported from Chicago, and David D. Kirkpatrick from Washington. Laurie Goodstein contributed reporting from New York.

It is interesting that he rates divorce as worse than gay marriage, which, actually, makes sense for a biblically minded person, since the Bible says very little about homosexual relationships and says a lot more about divorce. See my posting here on that. The whole thing about a brother and sister getting married being equal to gay marriage is just weird. But, here is the interesting thing about it (from a historical point of view). ONE: marriage between brother and sister IS attested throughout history--particularly among ancient royal families (most especially Egyptians). Although I doubt Warren was intended to activate those remembrances and was going for a more visceral reaction of disgust among conservatives--hardly a basis for legal issues. TWO: the passage in Leviticus that opposes MALE homosexual relations is embedded in a chapter that opposes incest. Perhaps he is picking up on the context of the one of two places the bible opposes homosexual relations (again, between men), although I am not sure if he is intentionally picking up on this relationship or not. While this analogy has a context in ancient Israel, if this context of his analogy is right, it is also part of selective reading, once again, since I'm sure he doesn't follow all the other rules of Leviticus either! So, he is going for visceral reactions and/or picking up on a book of the Bible that no Christian actually follows (except picking out this particular chapter). Neither of which sould constitute the legal parameters of marriage.

So, is having Warren offer a prayer at the inauguration a ringing endorsement of all of Warren's points of view? Not really--although Obama also technically opposed gay marriage during the election. Is it mere political maneuvering as the religious right maintains? I also doubt it. I actually thought Obama's defense made a certain amount of sense: we can disagree without being disagreeable. It makes a certain amount of sense in another way: while ideologically different, they both appear to me to be pragmatists. People who are willing to work with other people on a particular issue that they may agree on to actually get something done while bracketing those issues that they disagree, perhaps vehemently disagree, on. Isn't it this kind of coalition building that Obama campaigned on? Remember his lines that we may not agree on abortion, but we can all agree on reducing unwanted pregnancies, etc. To me, this is just an example of following through on his campaign positions. On the other hand, for people who have been struggling for equal rights and recognition all their lives, for people who have seen so many setbacks, there is a time to be angry.

For full disclosure, I was a TA for Randy Balmer (quoted in the article above) in his class, Evangelicalism, a class that exposed some of the frightening aspects of different varieties of evangelicals (and there are some very very widely variant groups under this fairly broad label) as well as, from my political position, some hopeful parts (especially evangelicals mobilizing for environmental issues, poverty, etc.). Indeed, as the article alluded to above, there are increasingly larger fissures among evangelicals not only theologically but politically. Some are becoming more and more entrenched on the far right. Others are becoming quite liberal and progressive. Yet most people are conservative on some issues and liberal on others--it is often, in my experience, issue specific.

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