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Rick Warren? Shame On You, Obama!

Via multiple sources (Greta Christina, Pam Spaulding, Glenn Greenwald, Americans United, as well as others), this unpleasant news: President-elect Barack Obama has apparently chosen megachurch pastor Rick Warren to give a speech at his inauguration day.

If you're not familiar with Rick Warren, or if you only know him as the author of The Purpose-Driven Life, here's a few of his greatest hits:

• Warren has been a dedicated enemy of marriage equality, equating gay rights to incest and pedophilia (source), and was a fervent supporter of the pro-bigotry Proposition 8. He is against civil unions for gay couples (source). He has even, arguably, given his support to African Christians who want homosexuality to be illegal (source).

• He's also rabidly anti-choice, comparing abortion to the Holocaust (source).

• Just for good measure, he's said that atheists are not qualified for the presidency:


"I could not vote for an atheist because an atheist says, 'I don't need God,'... They're saying, 'I'm totally self-sufficient by [myself].' And nobody is self-sufficient to be president by themselves. It's too big a job."

• And, oh yes, he's a creationist.

If Warren seems more approachable or more reasonable than the hate-spewing religious right leaders we all know, it's only because he presents his bigotry in a kinder, gentler facade. His church does occasionally discuss other issues, such as AIDS in Africa or global warming, but it takes more than that to earn my respect when he still spends so much time and energy pounding the religious right's standard causes.

In fact, Warren has said that only five issues are "non-negotiable" - his opposition to abortion, stem-cell research, cloning, gay rights and euthanasia - which puts him firmly in the camp of the other religious hatemongers. Apparently, if push came to shove, he would discard efforts to help the suffering of AIDS orphans, prevent the genocide in Darfur, or avert the looming threat of climate change in order to prevent gay couples from having civil unions. For all the high-minded media talk about the "new evangelicals", Warren is not substantially different from the old guard, and his beliefs are grounded in the same bigoted and ignorant worldview that motivates his predecessors. He's said himself that the difference between himself and Jerry Falwell is mainly "a matter of tone" (source).

Inviting him to speak at the inauguration is a terrible decision. The fact is, I understand why Obama made it - I think I grasp the political considerations that went into it - and I still think it's a bad decision.

I suspect Obama thought that, by inviting Warren, he would seem sensible and centrist in the eyes of the public, and might peel off some evangelical voters from the Republican coalition. And since Warren's speech is a symbolic gesture only, he probably thinks that his policies once in office will make up any lost goodwill among progressive voters.

As I said, I assume that was the Obama team's political calculus, but I think the real effects will be different. I think this invitation will be viewed as a slap in the face by liberal and progressive Americans - the very people who supported Obama's bid for the presidency and worked to put him into office. And while it may generate some fleeting goodwill among evangelical voters, I have no doubt that the vast majority of them will vote Republican in the next election anyway. Meanwhile, the lost goodwill among Obama's supporters may not be as easy to win back as he apparently thinks. It's very likely that he'll need us again to pressure Congress to support his proposals. Will we be willing to work again for him, having been denigrated in this way?

Insulting your allies for the sake of a futile gesture to your sworn enemies is a bad idea and bad politics. And I suspect the blowback has been far more intense and sustained than Obama's team anticipated, causing controversy and embarrassment where they had hoped to avoid both. Although I still consider Obama's election a tremendous net positive for America, this shameful pick may be a sign of how much work we'll have to do in the next eight years to prod our leaders toward implementing a truly progressive agenda.

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