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Obama’s New Preacher Problem

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Obama’s New Preacher Problem

Barack Obama—and America—has a preacher problem. First, of course, was Reverend Jeremiah Wright, preaching from the pulpit with an almost gleeful hatred that, even if you empathized with the man and recognized the sources of his profound frustration and anger, felt alienating and counterproductive to the post-racial agenda Obama had so eloquently and sensitively put forward. Another preacher, evangelical pastor Rick Warren, is a man who, after inviting Obama to his church earlier this year for a nationally televised Q&A in a supposed effort to find common ground and then ambushing him with “gotcha” culture-war questions, compared abortion to genocide and Obama to a Holocaust denier. “Oh, I do,” was the leader of Saddleback mega-church’s hearty response when asked by The Wall Street Journal if he equates gay marriage with polygamy, incest, and pedophilia.

To hear some pundits’ dismissive reactions to the outrage of Obama supporters in the hours following the announcement that Warren would be giving the inaugural invocation on January 20th, you’d think that the President-elect had invited Teddy Ruxpin to do it. Gay activists are apparently overreacting. They are evidently “looking for a fight” following the passage of Proposition 8 in California last month. In a video supporting the referendum, Warren said: “We should not let two percent of the population determine to change a definition of marriage that has been supported by every single culture and every single religion for 5,000 years. This is not even just a Christian issue, it’s a humanitarian and human issue.” And he was right. Civil rights is a “humanitarian” issue, the term being broadly defined as “having concern for or helping to improve the welfare and happiness of people.”

The ins and outs of gay rights, though, are irrelevant here. What matters is that the next president of the United States just invited a bigot to launch his administration…right? Or maybe it’s the fact that this next president of the United States has done it. Reverend Franklin Graham—who refused to take part in Sudanese peace negotiations in 1994, called Islam “a very evil and a very wicked religion” and condoned the use of WMD to destroy it, and, of course, declared that AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality—presided over George W. Bush’s inauguration eight years ago. No shocker there. And had John McCain been elected, he undoubtedly would have been sworn in alongside “agents of intolerance” like John Hagee and Jerry Falwell. Hypocrisy is the name of the game in American politics. But compared to these folks, Warren is something like a cuddly, animatronic teddy bear.

In response to the controversy, Obama reminded us that he has consistently been “a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans,” and that the invitation to Warren was an effort to be inclusive. These are the actions of a man who intends to govern as he campaigned, to lead as he orated. Unlike Bush’s acquisition of the presidency, Obama’s was not simply a power-grab: Rather than spend political capital far greater than Bush ever earned, and rather than exploit the so-called mandate of 53% (essentially a landslide in modern American presidential politics), he is living up to his promise. That is, perhaps, a political move in and of itself, since attaining power means nothing without maintaining it, but inclusiveness is what is going to make Obama a great president, and a stark contrast to Bush.

This issue has magnified something that has irked me about the Democratic Party for a long time. The right never panders to the left, but the left panders to the right almost pathologically. Is it simply proof that the nation is indeed “center-right,” as many conservatives would have us believe? Or is it something deeper and more profound within in the collective psyches of Democrats? An attorney friend of mine was told by her superiors recently that she had a character flaw, that she was “too nice,” and that if she were a man it would be okay. Perhaps the Democratic Party is afflicted with this same intrinsic flaw—one that makes them more gracious, inclusive, and willing to compromise. Yes, Obama is a bigger, and better, person than Bush. And yes, the country desperately needs a change from the divisive, strict partisanship of the last eight years. But in the twilight of those years, it isn’t difficult to see why many Democrats wouldn’t be so willing to extend the same invitation of camaraderie that was denied them since 2001.

If Obama’s objective is inclusiveness, whom exactly is he going out of his way to include—or exclude, for that matter? So eager to heal the rifts and avoid the mistakes of Bush and even Bill Clinton (during the Human Rights Campaign Forum earlier this year, panel member Melissa Etheridge told presidential nominee Hillary Clinton that the gay community had been heartbroken by her husband’s compromise on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and his official endorsement of the Defense of Marriage Act), Obama risks marginalizing his party’s victory by aligning himself with the very people who seek to undo what they stand for.

The argument is, then, that in the interest of complete inclusiveness, perhaps Obama should invite a Klansman or an anti-Semite to his inauguration as well. They are, of course, part of America. But if Warren had made derogatory statements about blacks or Jews, he would be removed post haste and likely drummed out of public life entirely—which, it seems, would be the ultimate punishment for a man who simply glows in the national spotlight. Or if, per chance, Warren expressed actual anger from the pulpit, Obama would have thrown him under the bus months ago. The sad reality is that, in 2008, it’s still okay to openly bash gays with little consequence.

If the past two years have taught us nothing else, it’s that symbolism matters, but it’s ultimately policy that will create real change. There is plenty of time to dialogue with people who have opposing ideologies, but how sad that the very first words spoken at this landmark moment for civil rights, and the first words that will officially usher in the first black president’s tenure, will not come from Reverend Joseph Lowery, who has devoted his life to civil rights and who will preside over the ceremony’s benediction, but from the mouth of a bigot. Warren is supposedly the kinder, gentler face of Christian fundamentalism in the 21st century, but he recites hate speech like a stuffed bear that’s got a cassette tape stuck in its back.

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.