Why is Rick Warren on Obama’s guest list?

January 9, 2009

Elizabeth Schulte looks at the record of the Christian Right leader who will give the invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration.

RICK WARREN is the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, and his own purpose (one of them, anyway) is clear--driving LGBT people into the shadows of society.

At Warren's enormous mega-church in Southern California, Saddleback Church, gays and lesbians can't be members--unless they "repent."

Warren opposes gay marriage, of course. He worked hard to help pass California's Proposition 8, which repealed equal marriage rights for same-sex couples granted by the California Supreme Court. Warren wants to ban same-sex marriage in the Constitution. He equates it with incest and pedophilia.

"I'm opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage," Warren told Steve Waldman of Beliefnet.com. "I'm opposed to having a brother and sister be together, and call that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child, and calling that a marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives, and calling that marriage."

Warren is also rabidly opposed to a woman's right to choose abortion, comparing it to the Holocaust.

Rick Warren

So why is this man even on the guest list, much less delivering the invocation, at Barack Obama's inauguration?

The response of outrage at Warren's inauguration invitation was immediate. As Joe Solomonese of the moderate Human Rights Campaign wrote in a letter to Obama:

Your invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at your inauguration is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans. Our loss in California over the passage of Proposition 8, which stripped loving, committed same-sex couples of their given legal right to marry, is the greatest loss our community has faced in 40 years.

And by inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table...

Rev. Warren is not a moderate pastor who is trying to bring all sides together. Instead, Rev. Warren has often played the role of general in the cultural war waged against LGBT Americans.

By featuring Warren so prominently--even if it is only for a few minutes, as Obama's spokespeople have claimed in his defense--the incoming administration is sending a message to the Christian Right that there is a place for its ideas. As the Washington Blade's Kevin Naff wrote:

What you can do

January 10 is a national day of action to demand the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. Look for a protest in your city and sign an open letter to Barack Obama at the Join the Impact Web site.

Obama should rescind the invitation to Warren. His presence on the inauguration stand is a slap in the faces of the millions of GLBT voters who so enthusiastically supported him. This tone-deafness to our concerns must not be tolerated.

We have just endured eight years of endless assaults on our dignity and equality from a president beholden to bigoted conservative Christians. The election was supposed to have ended that era. It appears otherwise.

OF COURSE, there were those who cynically thought Obama had made a deft political move. As Atlantic magazine political commentator Marc Ambinder wrote on his blog, "[I]gnoring something [sic] like Warren, a mainstream figure who commands the respect of million[s] of Americans, would be foolish. Obama's message is: Rick Warren is a part of Obama's America, too."

But Rick Warren's ideas about America are very different from those of the millions of people who voted for Barack Obama. In the name of creating an administration that welcomes all kinds of political thought, Obama is lending credibility to the foulest kinds of bigotry.

Consider Warren's claim that he is in the forefront of the fight against AIDS in Africa. According to Michelle Goldberg of the Religion Dispatches Web site, one of Warren's protégés, Ugandan pastor Martin Ssempa, is committed to doing away with safe-sex programs in a country already devastated by HIV. He has appeared on several occasions to burn condoms, and preaches abstinence and faith-healing to solve the HIV crisis.

In a BeliefNet.com interview, Warren likened Archbishop of Nigeria Peter Akinola--who is in favor of legislation that would "make it illegal for gay men and lesbians to form organizations, read gay literature or eat together in a restaurant"--to Nelson Mandela.

As Goldberg wrote in Britain's Guardian, Warren "has said things far more offensive than anything that ever passed the lips of Jeremiah Wright. He has every right to preach as he pleases and to build his fortune, but he does not belong at the center of American civic life, and Obama shouldn't put him there."

The Obama team claims that with Warren's invitation, it is showing its intention of creating a new, more inclusive politics in Washington. But as Glenn Greenwald asked on Salon.com:

[I]n what conceivable sense is this approach "new"? Even for those who are convinced this will work, isn't this exactly the same thing Democrats have been doing for the last two decades: namely, accommodating and compromising with the right in the name of bipartisan harmony and a desire to avoid partisan and cultural conflicts? This harmonious approach may be many things, but the one thing it seems not to be is "new."

A long line of Democrats have held out an olive branch to the Religious Right, knowing that they have the support of those to the left of them safely secured. This has been a disaster for organized labor, civil rights organizations and progressive causes--their demands get put on the back burner in the interest of not offending conservatives.

Thus, Bill Clinton prayed with Rev. Billy Graham, and signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which placed a federal ban on same-sex marriage. He compromised away the rights of gays and lesbians in the military with "don't ask, don't tell." He allowed a myriad of restrictions on abortion to be passed, and the Freedom of Choice Act died on the vine while he was president.

Obama says that he will work to repeal DOMA and pass the Freedom of Choice Act. But Warren's invitation to the inauguration shows that our side will have to be organized and vocal to pressure the new administration to act on its promises.

After the passage of Prop 8 in California, supporters of LGBT rights let their outrage be known in cities up and down California and across the country. Building on this fight and organizing further struggles is the only way to make the new administration meet our demands.

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