Monday, December 22, 2008

Obama, Rick Warren, & Gay Marriage

Many people I know are very disappointing with Barak Obama for asking Pastor Rick Warren - leader of the 22,000 member Saddleback Church, author of the wildly best selling book "the Purpose Driven Life", and de facto head honcho of the U.S. evangelical movement - to deliver the inaugural "invocation" - aka prayer. The reason, of course, is that Warren was instrumental in pulling out the vote for California's Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage in that state.

I myself was not disappointed - because I never saw Obama as an ideological leftist, or flaming liberal. He is a pragmatist, who has feelings for the poor and marginalized, but no principled "religious" position on what is right and proper. In other words he is willing to sacrifice one goal to attain another, and - other than personal corruption - there is no "red line" he will not cross. It is all cost benefit. In addition, he was open about his luke-warm support for gay rights: he has said all along that he supports "civil unions" but not "gay marriage."

So it should come as no surprise that he was willing to throw gays under the bus in order to try to reach out to evangelical Christians. It's a no brainier considering the relative numbers, and the fact that gays are not going to vote Republican en-mass in any case. More importantly Obama believes, and in this sense Warren is his ally, that poverty and the environment are as much "Christian issues" as abortion and gay rights are. He hopes that by showing respect to evangelicals and "talking there language" he can crack the monolithic support of evangelicals for the Republicans. And if he only succeeds in getting 40% of evangelicals to vote Democratic in future elections he will have made a strategic breakthrough. That is the background for the invitation of Warren to the Inauguration.

Is it moral? No - not unless you are a 100% utilitarian and also believe that Democrats will always bring more good than Republicans. But it is politics.

Still did Obama have to be so crass? Could he have "had his cake and eat it too?" In other words: Could he have reached out to evangelicals without offending gays, and appearing to back Proposition 8? hgb Rabbi Arthur Waskow seems to think so. In his regular weekly "letter" Waskow writes:

... [Warren] who uses the power of the state to deprive people of their right to the religious celebration and legal protection of their loving relationship is a bully -- no matter whether he smiles and smiles, he's still a bully.

The White House, Theodore Roosevelt once said, is a "bully pulpit." Noon on Inauguration Day is that pulpit at its peak. TR did not mean the White House should become a "bully's pulpit."

Whom could Obama have invited instead?

I do think it was a good idea to reach out to evangelicals, but there was a far better possible person -- better religiously, symbolically, politically.

Reverend Richard Cizik, who for 28 years has been vice-president and chief lobbyist of the National Association of Evangelicals, recently did an act that Jews called tshuvah. Literally, that means "turning" one's self toward the God Who is always evolving. That is the most profoundly religious act a person can undertake, and it often means losing prestige and power.

Cizik has put himself on the line for years, insisting that a true evangelical Christian must take action to heal God's creation from the wounds humans are inflicting on it -- especially from the global climate disaster looming before us. It was not a popular opinion among the institutional evangelical leadership, because they saw it as distracting from the sexuality issues - abortion, same-sex rights, etc. But more and more young evangelicals agreed.

Then a few weeks ago Cizik was being interviewed by NPR's Terry Gross:

Gross: But now as you identify more with younger voters, would you say you have changed on gay marriage?

Cizik: I'm shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say that I believe in civil unions. I don't officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don't think.

For this he was forced to resign.

Honoring people who despite institutional pressure move toward God's justice, God's compassion, God's shalom -- now that's an act of religious celebration. Might inviting Cizik have been seen as an act of confrontation? Yes, but not a confrontation with evangelical Christians --- since that's who Cizik is. Rather a confrontation with rigid bullies at the top of some evangelical institutions. A gift of hope and fresh air for evangelicals, young and old, who have begun to Wrestle. And a gift of fresh air to Americans at large, who might have remembered that invoking God does not mean bowing down to stodginess.

Obama has --- and rightly --- celebrated the confluence of his Inauguration with the birthday of Martin Luther King. Does he remember that before Dr. King became a saint he was a troublemaker? Rejected by many leaders of official Christianity, especially when he opposed the Vietnam War?

Obama should have asked Rev. Cizik to invoke the God we all need --- the God who Wrestles with us and asks us to Wrestle, all night and every morning, with our beliefs about the universe.

That would have put the issue where it belongs - in serious public dialogue and debate.
(To see Waskow's full, spirited and intellectually very interesting theological justification of gay marriage read this article on the Shalom Center web site.)

My own solution to liberal politicians conundrum re gay marriage - how do you support it without alienating a very large part of the electorate - is that the government should get out of the marriage business all together. It should sanction civil unions only. (All previously registered marriages would now be deemed civil unions.) The government's interest in marriage should be limited to the property and financial rights and obligation between the partners, and with the welfare of the children - if any - of the union. And that is precisely what civil union laws do.

Marriage, which connotes societal or Godly blessing of the union, should be strictly a private and/or religious matter. If the Catholics wish to refuse to marry the legally divorced, that is their right. If most Rabbis refuse to marry a Jew to a non-Jew, that is their right. If Pastor Warren will not marry a gay couple, that is his right. Let the couples obtain a civil union from the state, and then - if they wish - get the sanction of marriage from which ever religious leader and group they feel comfortable with. Of course the same would apply to straight, non-divorced, or mixed-religious couples as well.

I am all for gay marriage. I just don't think it is any of the states business.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

He's there for the invocation not as cabinet minister. It's a very smart move.

5:39 pm  

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