Time for Debate, Not Despair

I’m torn up yet again by the enormous tidal wave of emotion surrounding Obama’s choice of Rick Warren as the pastor who’ll deliver the invocation at Obama’s inauguration.

I understand where this torrent comes from. I understand the desperate impatience of LGBTQs to stop being treated as second class citizens–to simply have the same rights as any other group of people under the law. It’s so obvious that equal protection under the law means EVERYBODY, I feel ridiculous having to state it.

If I had been demonized by the religious right and treated like a political football by Republicans and Democrats for decades, I’d be bristling that my freedom meant so little to so many people too. I’d be a snarling open wound…much as I’ve been these past 8 years under Bush. To the extent that I can empathize by relating my strong emotions under Bush with the grief, rage, sense of betrayal, outrage, disgust and loathing for Warren and anyone who believes what he does, I do. I’ve had a tiny taste in how much I hate Bush, and am ill that anyone must continue to live experiencing that level of fury today.

I am now, have been, and will be a staunch ally in the fight for marriage equality.

But what troubles me so much from so many is the intense focus on Warren. He’s done one or two very good things, and said many more hideously offensive things.

His degree of homophobia is such that he equates it with pedophilia, incest, and polygamy. I’m sorry–that’s insane.

He believes abortion is a holocaust. I don’t. He thinks women should submit to their husbands. No fucking way.

Yet he’s achieved genuine good in serving the poor and helping people with HIV/AIDS overseas.

So, he’s an ambiguous religious leader, (one I tend to think is mostly quack, personally) and all too human in that he’s a weird mix of good deeds and bad (some of them hateful) beliefs.

There are political and also possibly transformative reasons why Obama would’ve deliberately invited this polarizing figure to speak at the Inaugural. Or, it could also have been a giant mistake that Obama is struggling to contain. However we were given this lemon, I think we can’t get to how Warren’s presence could possibly be made into lemonade and in service to the eventual goal of marriage equality until we reject that Rove/Clinton/McCain meme “we don’t know Obama or where he stands”–i.e., “black inscrutability”–and reassure ourselves that we understand what Obama’s compass is.

To do that, we should look at the reverend who will be delivering the benediction–a far more important position and indication of Obama’s own religious home. So far this has gotten little to NO mention at all. Diary after diary at DKos has given barely a mention to Rev. Joseph Lowery, a legendary civil rights figure, activist for social justice, and yes–supporter of marriage equality.

Here’s Rev. Lowery at Coretta Scott King’s funeral, delivering a tender, humorous, slightly corny but utterly heartbreaking (because of its corniness) eulogy and specifically mentioning Ms. King’s condemnation of homophobia (3:55 in):


Here’s Rev. Lowery on the public list of religious figures in support of marriage equality.

And again, he’s cited with major African American religious leaders as a supporter of marriage equality.

And here again, at the National Black Justice Coalition, listed as a supporter of marriage equality. (Just for kicks, I’d like to add that Rev. Wright is also a supporter of marriage equality. Even though that is neither here nor there.)

Now we know from reading Obama’s thoughts on the place of religion in public life that his spiritual home lies in the liberation theology found in the African American church. Here’s where I arrive at this conclusion, by reading his “Call to Renewal Keynote Address”:

For one thing, I believed and still believe in the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change, a power made real by some of the leaders here today. Because of its past, the black church understands in an intimate way the Biblical call to feed the hungry and cloth the naked and challenge powers and principalities. And in its historical struggles for freedom and the rights of man, I was able to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world. As a source of hope. [emphasis mine]

And perhaps it was out of this intimate knowledge of hardship — the grounding of faith in struggle — that the church offered me a second insight, one that I think is important to emphasize today.

Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t have doubts.

So what Obama feels kinship with is the desire that faith lead you to do good deeds in this imperfect world, that faith gives you sustenance and strength as you struggle toward freedom and justice. Emphasis on DO. Emphasis on STRUGGLE.

I’m an atheist, but the religions I do respond to well are ones that emphasize the power of people to liberate themselves from injustice, not pacification with the promise of some far-off, future, mythical, all-curing “afterlife.” Religions that emphasize beauty, a state of grace, transcendence, and the practice of expanding your capacity to truly love get my respect, if not my belief. Religions that give you reasons to narrow your world and find reasons to hate get my disdain for the wealth-generating, idolizing, completely self-aggrandizing worldly endeavors that they are. I admire religions that celebrate, instead of punish. I am glad religions exist that seek to teach wisdom, model uplift, and force normally indifferent people to confront suffering with some kind of action to alleviate it.

I still think organized religion is not for me. (Which is why I can’t help but be extra fatigued by the controversy over Warren–I don’t personally feel the need for religious invocation or benediction at the Inaugural. But it’s not my Inaugural, is it?) Yet, I acknowledge and respect that organized religions are enormously helpful and necessary to others.

Obama, having said that he’s a born-again (liberal) Christian, specifically says his spiritual home is the African American church. And within that, a kind of church that has sought to extend liberation theology beyond the traditional definition of civil rights based on race, to universal civil rights including equality for LBGTQs in every realm of life.

Why people would feel that Obama’s pick of Warren is indicative of Obama’s close allegiance with what Warren believes is beyond me–they so clearly disagree. (The question of political triangulation is separate, to my mind.) I’ve seen thousands of comments very cogently laying out why we should be angry that Warren is even appearing at the Inaugural. I agree with many of the reasons. They have everything to do with his homophobic beliefs, his creepy, disturbing “feel-good” interpretation of the Bible. Why would you invite a huckster like Warren if not for politically calculated reasons?


Didn’t we all just have a talk about race in American life, led by one Democratic nominee who just became our elected-in-a-landslide President(elect)? About how the most segregated hour in American life is Sunday morning when Christians are attending church?

I think that cannot be understated. The difference between the varieties of mainline white American protestantism, modern evangelicalism, or however you’d like to name it, and African American churches is stark. It’s the difference between night and day–it’s the difference called slavery. It’s why there’s a strong justice-seeking component to African American Methodist or Baptist observance.

And lacking any grounding in such a people-defining moment as slavery, white mega-churches, I’m sorry to say, mainly seem to be about the acquisition of tax-exempt money, property, and ego when they’re not actually ministering to the “least among us.”

That said, it may very well be that Obama has a blind spot regarding LBGTQ rights. Just as it might be the case that many LBGTQs have a blind spot when it comes to race. In this instance, I prefer to listen to LBGTQs of color. Too often the conversation gets falsely divided between (white) LBGTQ community and (straight) people of color with attendant unspoken racisms and homophobias, as well as accusations of aforementioned crowding the air.

Pam’s House Blend is one place I turned to hear from a multi-ethnic LBGTQ community. I think they most cogently explained why Warren should not have been invited in the first place. But now that Warren has, Obama’s really stuck with his mistake, isn’t he?

SistersTalk isn’t one to mince words. She first caught my attention on this when she pointed out that Hillary helped Bill Clinton write the DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), yet the gay community wasn’t up in arms over the appointment of Senator Clinton to Secretary of State in the Obama administration. That brought me up short.

Then she dared to point out other inconvenient facts, like the numbers of openly gay people who are part of Obama’s transition team or the out lesbian he’s appointed to be head of the Council on Environmental Quality.

Then SistersTalk had some interesting things to say about how the HRC was making Warren everyone’s issue, when in fact there’s a lot of diversity among LBGTQs and it’s not catgerically the case that all LBGTQs have the same exact position when it comes to Warren’s invitation to give the invocation at Obama’s inauguration. And certainly not every LBGTQ person agrees to be spoken for by HRC.

[Updated to add: I find some comfort in Lezzymom's post as well, also emphasizing Rev. Lowery's words and deeds on ending discrimination based on sexual orientation.]

[Update 2: I came across this thoughtful DKos diary that also decried the unproductive and useless oppression olympics taking place over “gay rights/African American civil rights” analogies: mka193′s “All the Gay People are White, All the Whites are Men…But Some of Us Are Brave” and probably the best post-mortem on the No on 8 campaign that I’ve seen so far, hahne’s “Proposition 8 Post-mortem from a senior volunteer.“)

All in all, I felt I got a little bit more balance, and the idea grew that maybe we Obama supporters haven’t learned to use our double consciousness lenses to evaluate his actions. By that, I mean we focus too much on what the white people he interacts with are doing and ascribe both too much and too little agency to Obama himself. Obama is used to working in a very layered way, speaking to all and burying within that large bandwidth frequencies that can also directly address African Americans, or dominant culture, or veterans, or women (etc) at various times. We’re used to the broad-brush, not very discerning, one-message-fits-all model of mass media.

But–dare I say it? Obama works in a different vein. An almost literary way, where meaning is both clear and yet resonates with other associations and meanings if you’re a careful reader.

And I am starting to believe that if you want to know where Obama really stands, listen closely to the African American channel. Because he knows anyone who is African American in his cabinet will likely reflect on him all-too-closely (Reverend Wright, anyone?) due to our culture’s overall inability (an effect of the distorting lenses of racism) to discern nuance between and among black people. I believe that on key policies, the African American advisors who are closest to him and around him will give the most accurate window into his priorities and agenda.

Note, for example, how Obama promptly stated that Clarence Thomas would have been the Supreme Court Justice pick he would never have made. As a Constitutional lawyer and student of jurisprudence, no doubt also an admirer of Justice Thurgood Marshall, I can see why it would be particularly galling to Obama to have an undeserved Clarence Thomas occupy such a prominent seat. The person who despises the token the most is the capable, talented person of that same group who earned his or her way to a position of prominence and has the discernment to assess from within the profession the token’s failings.

In engaging SistersTalk a little, we were chatting about Rev. Joseph Lowery and agreed that a debate between the esteemed Civil Rights leader/minister and Rev. Rick Warren would be awesome.

It seems some religious people need an authority figure to legitimize positions many of us arrive at ourselves through some other process of reasoning. So to have one’s minister be confronted by another minister who believes exactly the opposite–marriage equality is a civil right that must be universal in order for it to be meaningful–that debate could be illuminating for Warren’s followers. Anything that introduces the slightest bit of credible uncertainty into a narrow mind has the potential to be radically disruptive.

So it’s come to pass, pretty quickly, that Rev Eric Lee, head of Los Angeles’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) branch, has challenged Rev Rick Warren to a debate. The deadline to sign a petition urging Warren to accept the challenge is Christmas Eve.

This is brilliant. I only wish this were happening a thousand times over in Asian-language faith communities, in Latino churches, in mosques and temples everywhere. (I am wondering who progressive interfaith and bilingual allies are, to counter their more conservative brethren. I don’t typically follow this as a non-believer. A topic for another post, maybe.)


So go here and sign the petition to have Rev. Rick Warren defend his views on gay marriage. He’s said so many hurtful, flat-out wrong, and damning, hate-filled things that at the very least, he needs to be called to account on them. He needs to explain, at length, in public, why he continues to believe and repeat ugly things about gay people and about gay marriage. And Warren needs to explain his views to another man of the cloth, Rev. Lee, and those who follow him instead.

This may be a time when allies like Rev Lee can and should do the work they may be best suited for, in the communities in which their voices are best heard.

I understand the rage. Brothers and sisters, you haven’t been abandoned. Let your allies help you as best they can. Put straight progressive faith allies to work. Who else would a fearful, unthinking authority-loving, straight evangelical listen to, but another straight Christian?

It’s like the power of white people who can counter the racism of other white people. Straights who can shoud try to change minds and hearts of homophobes. Asian Pacific Americans who can speak to other APAs about homophobia in our own communities, in the mother tongues we best understand, should do so. I’d like to see more and more allies (myself included) step up and make inroads.

Together, we will keep pushing for what’s right and we will win this.

Most of all, let’s stay pro-active.

2 thoughts on “Time for Debate, Not Despair

  1. I know I should read all your links and watch the speech, but I’m straight for equality, and this announcement did feel like a kick in the gut and I can’t be so open right now. Obama has asked us to watch what he does, not what he says. In this case, his actions speak louder than his words.
    This is not to say that I’m denouncing my support of him, but I’m very very disappointed by the Warren thing.

  2. April, I know what you mean…my disgust at hearing that Warren was invited really made me question what the thought process was behind Obama’s choice to invite him also.

    And it took me a long time to get to this point.

    I think the things I cannot dismiss, as much as I’d like to, come down to this:

    1) evangelical Christians who think as Warren does exist, and they aren’t going away, nor will they stop voting, any time soon

    2) waiting for them to die off is too slow, and doesn’t address the root problem (people using scripture as an excuse to hate other people)

    So, what would it look like if a real dialogue took place among people of faith? What if assumptions or falsehood could be challenged? What if straight progressive-faith allies could use the leverage they have to pry open the minds of fellow religionists who make their faith exclusionary and preach hate?

    Whether or not Obama intended for this to be such an opportunity, I’m suggesting we seize it as such. When else will we get a chance like this?

    April, I hope you can come back at some point and digest what I’ve put out here.

    Because I haven’t stopped thinking about or working for marriage equality, and I suspect it’ll take pressure from as many fronts as we can generate to make it happen.

  3. Pingback: Back to School, or, Welcome, 111th Congress! « MOMocrats Legacy Posts: 2007-2011

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