OutRight: The Purpose-Driven Life

Tapping Rick Warren reflects Barack Obama’s ‘charity for all.’

By Dale Carpenter

DaleCarpenterReactions to Barack Obama’s choice of a prominent pro-Prop 8 preacher to deliver the invocation at his inauguration have fallen along some familiar lines. On the basic question whether Obama will be a good president for gay rights or another huge disappointment, like Bill Clinton, we still don’t have even a preliminary answer. Choosing Rick Warren may be an early warning sign, but it might also reflect Obama’s transformative potential.

 Warren goes lighter on the sexual sins, and heavier on helping the poor and sick, than most prominent religious-conservative leaders. But like them, he thinks homosexual acts are sinful and that gays should become heterosexual. He opposes gay marriage, which he says is as wrong as incestuous and pedophilic marriage.

Warren is undeniably influential, and not just with his large Southern California congregation. He’s the best-selling author of The Purpose-Driven Life , a religious species of motivational and self-help book that attaches special significance to the number “40.” In August, John McCain and Barack Obama trekked to a presidential “forum” that Warren hosted, at which they took turns affirming how religious they are.  

 For a certain class of gay Obama supporters, mostly pundits and bloggers, the choice of Warren was a shocking betrayal. For them, Warren is just a Jerry Falwell who tithes more. You don’t befriend or co-opt people like that. You “crush” them, as one commentator wrote.

 These particular Obama supporters really believed that he cared so much about gay rights that he would devote himself to it to the exclusion of mere politics, which he was thought to rise above. During the campaign, they ignored Obama’s consorting with antigay ministers, paid no heed to Obama’s lack of actual accomplishments for gay equality, and caricatured his opponent as a standard Republican ogre.

 Politics for them is a continual triumph of hope over experience, especially when it comes to the Democratic Party. Now they imagine they will hold Obama’s feet to the fire, to use just one metaphor I’ve read recently, as if Obama has anything to fear from people who told us we had no respectable choice but to support him. For them, the Obama presidency is going to be a corduroy road to disenchantment.

 Many gay conservatives pounced on Obama’s choice as proof that he’s Clinton redux, totally uncommitted and ready to ditch gays to serve his own interests. That could be correct.

 But another interpretation is also plausible: Obama is doing exactly what many gay conservatives have been urging gay-rights advocates to do. Without actually giving any ground on policy, he’s reaching out to people who disagree with him.

 A third group of commentators regarded the selection of Warren as unimportant, purely a matter of symbolism, not substance. It’ll be a few minutes of platitudes and pieties about racial progress and helping the poor, during which Warren is unlikely to lay out views on specific policy issues. Who remembers a single word from a past inaugural invocation except “amen”? What matters, they say, is what Obama does on policy.

 They have a point. Policy matters more, and for this we will have to await some actual results. But symbolism sets a tone. It defines what is acceptable and what is not. Everything about an inauguration, especially this one, is symbolic. Obama will swear to uphold the Constitution as his left hand rests on the Bible that Abraham Lincoln used for that purpose. The choice of Warren has symbolic potency precisely because it’s so seemingly discordant at the inauguration of a president many gay-rights supporters thought they could trust.

 The question then is, what kind of symbolic message is Obama sending and is it inconsistent with gay equality?

 Choosing Warren was smart politics since it appeals to a group of religious voters who mostly distrust Democrats. That may be all it was. But I take Obama at his word that he’s actually promoting a different politics. Call it a politics of “anti-demonization” or, as Lincoln put it, “charity for all.” The idea is that there can be some good in those we disagree with. There may even be merit in their disagreement.

 Gay-rights supporters must become masters of anti-demonization, of charity for all, both because it is right and because it is effective. A majority of this country subscribes to the moral dogma of Rick Warren, including his views on homosexuality. Religious doctrine, along with visceral disgust, is still the greatest barrier to achieving things like gay marriage.

 We are not going to crush 200 million Americans. We are not going to circumvent them through courts. They must become comfortable with the notion that equal dignity and regard for gay Americans is no threat to them or their families. They must see the connections, the similarities, between gay lives and their own.

 That happens through familiarity, which promotes understanding. And understanding has always been pro-gay. It doesn’t happen overnight, but by imperceptible degrees. You arrive at the destination before you realize you’ve been on a journey.

Seeing one of their own leaders on the podium at the inauguration of a president who publicly calls himself a “fierce advocate” for gay Americans might help make it a little bit easier for religious conservatives to envision our cause literally side by side with theirs. To the extent Warren’s accession elevates further among them a voice that de-emphasizes the condemnation of homosexuality, that’s not a bad day’s work.

Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.


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