Forget for a moment US President-elect Barack Obama’s attempts to reach across the political divide by appointing Republicans to his Cabinet, probably the boldest and potentially most provacative move he has made so far has been to invite Pastor Rick Warren to his inauguration next month.
Religion seems to be more controversial than politics in this Presidential transition.
He has incurred the displeasure of some of his supporters with his decision to ask Pastor Warren, who preaches at the fourth largest church in America, to perform the invocation at his inauguration.
Warren is extremely popular in America for his Bible-themed “Purpose Driven” guides for how to live a more meaningful life which have sold over 20 million copies.
He has also done a service to America, and particularly to moderate Christians in what remains a very religious nation, in helping to shift the focus of what defines the religious political movement away from just abortion and homosexuality toward AIDS in Africa, the plight of the poor, climate change and human rights.
Obama has already signalled his admiration for Warren when he appeared alongside his Republican opponent John McCain at a forum organised by the pastor to discuss faith and politics during the campaign.
Warren himself has received criticism from the religious Right for allegedly providing legitimacy for Obama by inviting him to speak at his church on World AIDS Day.
However, Warren is also a traditionalist on many issues and was a supporter of Proposition 8, which has left many of Obama’s gay and lesbian supporters outraged about his appearance at the inauguration on January 20th.
Various Facebook groups and bloggers have started to complain about this decision and no doubt protests will follow.
This puts the President-elect in a difficult position.
Warren is no James Dobson or Jerry Falwell.
He does not preach hate, even if some of his statements about gay marriage may be offensive, false, and frankly absurd.
He may not support same-sex marriage, but his position on equality for gay and lesbian people does not differ hugely from that of Obama – or indeed his opponents for the Democratic nomination, Senators Hillary Clinton and John Edwards.
He believes in providing equal protections for the LGBT community. He is also in favour of same-sex unions, just as we have in the United Kingdom.
For all those who claim that it would all be different if Hillary Clinton had been elected they should recall that she has expressed her admiration for Warren and appeared at his church in 2007 where she received a standing ovation.
She said to Pastor Warren at the event: “The commitment you have demonstrated, both to our faith in God and to doing his work here on earth is exemplary.”
Let’s also remember that it was Billy Graham, who once said that all homosexuals should be castrated, who gave the invocation at President Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.
Obama was elected to unite the country.
Warren may not be acceptable to everyone but he represents a large part of mainstream America, and only when the hearts and minds of that part of the country are slowly changed will the nation truly become more accepting of gay and lesbian people.
Who knows, in the future Rick Warren may be a part of that.
Like many of the new generation of religious leaders, he is not palatable to gays and lesbians right now, but he does offer some hope for understanding and finding common ground, unlike the likes of Falwell and Dobson.
It should also be noted that at the inauguration Rev Joseph Lowery will join Pastor Warren in offering prayers.
He is the ‘dean of the Civil Rights movement’, the man who founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King Jr and a Christian who supports same-sex marriage.
Joe Solomnese, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, wrote in a letter to the President-elect:
“Your invitation to Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at your inauguration is a genuine blow to LGBT Americans.”
It is a blow to gays and lesbians in America, but Obama is not abandoning this community or shunning it.
It is Obama, with a Democratic Congress, who offers the best hope for a decade of progress on LGBT rights.
I would suggest the gay rights lobby concentrate on passing employment anti-discrimination legisation, hate crimes laws, ending the ban on gays in the military and repealing the defence of marriage act (DOMA).
That will really change the lives of Americans, rather than focusing too much on one man with whom Obama does not agree with on every issue (Obama has stated categorically that he disagrees profoundly with his positions on abortion and homosexuality), but who is part of his efforts to bring red and blue states, gay and straight, religious and atheist together, as he promised throughout his campaign.
The Warren decision will upset many in the short-term. We may not like him. We may even hate him, but there is a bigger picture to consider.
Uniting America may be the best aspiration that everyone can have, even if it means engaging with those whom we respectfully disagree.