Obama, Rick Warren and me

Rick Warren is one the most likable people I’ve ever met. We traveled to Rwanda together back in 2005, and spent time at Saddleback Church. I came away impressed with his big heart, his passion, his smarts and his long-running effort to broaden the political agenda of evangelical Christians to include the issues of global poverty, AIDS and the environment.

But Barack Obama made a mistake by selecting Warren, the nation’s most influential religious leader, to give the invocation at his inaugural. The choice has rightfully angered gay and lesbian Americans. People who care deeply about abortion rights are pleased either.

As it happens, I don’t think Rick’s views on abortion should disqualify him from speaking at the inaugural. As Obama said, while defending the choice at a press conference earlier today, “it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues.” Fair enough—we can agree to disagree respectfully about abortion, as much as our views are strongly held. (You can read Obama’s full answer here.)

The gay rights issue is different. Having Rick Warren give the invocation, at an event that should be a celebration for all Americans, is an insult to tens of millions of LGBT people. I don’t believe that Rick is a bigot, or that he holds any personal animus towards gay people. But his interpretation of the Bible, which he believes to be the word of God, has led him to believe that gay and lesbian relationships are fundamentally wrong.

I quoted him to that effect in my FORTUNE story, Will Success Spoil Rick Warren?, as John Cloud of TIME noted in an excellent column published today:

About three years ago, a reporter at Fortune asked Rick Warren — the successful pastor whom the President-elect has asked to pray at his inauguration — about homosexuality. “I’m no homophobic guy,” Warren said. His proof? He had dined with gays; he has a church “full of people who are caring for gays who are dying of AIDS”; he believes that “in the hierarchy of evil… homosexuality is not the worst sin.” So gays get to eat — sometimes even with Rick Warren! Then they get to die of AIDS — possibly under the care of Rick Warren’s congregants. And when they go to hell, they won’t be quite as far down in Satan’s pit as other evildoers.

But Warren did have a message of hope for gays: they can magically become heterosexuals. (He didn’t explain how, but I suspect he thinks praying really hard would do it, as though most of us who grew up gay and evangelical hadn’t tried that every night as teenagers.) Homosexuality, Pastor Warren explained in the virtually content-free language of the dogmatist, is “not the natural way.” And then he went right for the ick factor, the way middle-school boys do: “Certain body parts are meant to fit together.”

When Rick and I discussed the issue—always at my request—I never felt he was mean-spirited. But I told him that his position provided cover for bigots, even for those commit acts of violence against gays. He replied by reminding me, accurately, that he has argued for years that evangelical Christians should talk a lot less about the hot-button social issues and a lot more about problems around which all Americans can unite, like poverty or the environment. “I’m a bridge builder, not a divider,” he likes to say.

The trouble is, religious differences can’t easily be bridged. The world’s religions “totally contradict each other” and are “mutually exclusive” is how Rick put it to me back then. When we explored this further, he told me, cheerfully, that he thinks I’m going to hell because I haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as my savior (I’m Jewish), but that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. Trust me that he’s a hard guy not to like.

The controversy over Obama’s choice got me wondering: Is there any religious figure in America today who could give the invocation at an inaugural without making some people unhappy? I called my friend Donna Schaper to ask her. Donna’s the senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, a liberal Protestant, progressive in her politics, and a gifted writer, speaker, gardener and mother. (I know this because she’s married to my friend and college roommate, Warren Goldstein, a historian and the biographer of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin.) Donna said that it’s possible to construct an ecumenical invocation, but very hard to find a single person to deliver the prayer who could appeal to all Americans.

When Donna leads prayers at public occasions, she talks about

God, whose name we do not and cannot know, whom some call Allah and some Spirit, whom some call Ruach and others Yahweh or Adonai, some call Jesus and some call Christ, others know only as Breath or Ruach, still others understand as energy or force, Thou who are nameless and properly so, draw near….

Rick, if you’re reading this, there’s an approach for you.

Donna has also been to events where four religious leaders—Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim– deliver prayers. “Then, of course, the Buddhists and Sikhs and others would be left out,” she says.

Because she’s an Obama fan, I asked Donna what she thought of the choice of Rick Warren. She admitted disappointment. “I’m still very pro-Obama, and he must have his reasons, but in addition to insulting women and gays, he missed a big opportunity,” she told me. “He lost the chance to do something positive, and imaginative.”

I agree. It’s fine for Obama to invite Rick Warren to the White House, to enlist his help dealing with AIDS and to honor his work in Africa. Just don’t put him on the podium on Jan. 20, a day that is supposed to belong to all Americans.


  1. darren toth says

    Perhaps this is Obama’s way to bridge the “left” and the “right” together, by not making the religious feel ousted on the big day…but I honestly don’t know.
    I personally have a hard time understanding the logic against gays and more specifically, gay marriage. The religious claim it is against the Biblical description of what Marriage is supposed to be, but historically, marriage has been about property, politics, and polygamy, and wasn’t even a religious sacrament until the 12th century.
    Many religious folks claim that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and a sin; they believe that people “choose” to be gay.
    I am not gay-it’s not a choice I have ever made, I simply am attracted to women, and the person I fell in love with happens to be a (wonderful) woman.
    But even still, if we grant that homosexuality IS a choice for sake of argument, and that particular religions think homosexuality is wrong, this is still America. America gives us the Rights to Life, Liberty, et.al, and our Constitution protects people’s rights to practice any religion.
    Ultimately, practicing a particular religion is a Choice. It is a personal decision; one that someone else of a different faith is going see as absolutely wrong and disdainful in the eyes of “God”. Kinda like Rick Warren’s belief that Marc Gunther, although a great guy, is going to hell for that Bar Mitzvah he participated in a a boy.

    So therefore, Religious people want their lifestyle choice to be protected, which in so doing, damages another lifestyle choice. I don’t think that this matches up to “treating others as you wish to be treated”.

    I personally don’t believe being gay is a choice.

    That’s me. I understand the conservative’s hesitation-the fear that letting go of something like this opens up the question of the rights of pedophiles, Bigamists and other assorted “weirdos”, but that argument only goes so far. The real issue is individual personal liberties of CONSENTING adults. The religious fear comes from grouping all aspects of sexuality which they find distasteful or do not understand, and they lose sight of the particulars. The difference between a pedophile and a healthy gay relationship is that a child does not have the capacity to make a choice about sexuality the way an adult does. Legitimizing gay marriage does not mean that we will quickly tumble into a hedonistic anarchy.

    America has been an experiment in freedom since its conception. The idea that a person can make their own choices as long as those choices don’t tread on the choices of others. If you love someone, you should not have to plead your case to the world in order for that love to be legitimate. It was in 1967 that the Courts finally ruled that Miscegenation Laws banning interracial marriage were unconstitutional(Loving v. Virgina). I don’t see the difference between interracial and homosexual. I just don’t.
    It upsets me that people who claim to be loving, rational humans can not see this paradox in their rationale. Hopefully, open dialogue and patience on BOTH sides will help us come to some conclusion.

  2. Ron says

    Marc, this is an excellent post. I’m grateful to you for addressing this issue, and doing so in such a thoughtful way. I am angry at Obama and hugely disappointed with him. Many individuals and organizations, including the Human Rights Commission, consider Obama’s invitation to Rick Warren not only ill-conceived, but also an insult. I agree. It is, indeed, insulting, and I see no practical way in which this action could be a means of bringing someone like Warren “into the tent” of greater tolerance. If it’s a “rope-a-dope” tactic with Warren, I think it’s bound to fail. The only thing that has succeeded? Obama has completely lost my respect — and my support.

  3. Charles says

    Marc, when you were in Rwanda, did you discuss with Pastor Warren how he actually paid for his trip to and Saddleback’s mission and objectives in Africa? His very presence in Africa is at the expense of American taxpayers. It is called the PEPFAR program, and was reauthorized this year, before the financial crisis, at $48 BILLION! If Warren is there offering medicine, that would be one thing. But he is obviously there conducting a religous mission if you guys are “chewing the fat” about God, spiritual matters, and your soul.

    The issue here is not really about Warren reading a prayer on the inaugural platform. The issue is Warren receiving millions in taxpayer faith-based funding , serving as gatekeeper to many other evangelical churches doing their missionary thing in Africa.

    It is time for Congress to exercise some serious oversight on the Bush PEPFAR program, at a minimum requiring full and total transparency on which churches are receiving how much money for what measurable activity. How much funding did PEPFAR provide Saddleback this year? It is time for the Congress to pull back significantly from African AIDS and begin to focus on African-American AIDS, which is exploding among African American men. The epicenter of this explosion is in Washington, D.C. But Pastor Warren is not dealing with gay , homoxexual or “down low” African American AIDS. He is in Rwanda where AIDS is hetero, the bill is paid by taxpayers, and souls can be saved with his trademark missionary zeal.

    Thanks for allowing me to raise this issue.

  4. Vicki says

    Thank you Marc. I agree with you totally. It’s one thing to talk to dogmatic people, it’s another to give validity and weight to their irrational, divisive opinions by propping them up on a pedistal for all to admire.

  5. says

    Marc, I’m weighing in on this a little late, but I found this to be a very well-written and effective post. While Rick Warren may “hate the sin, love the sinner,” his approach seems too narrow and self-rightous to me. I am an Obama supporter, but I question his wisdom with this selection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>