‘Define marriage,” Pastor Rick Warren asked Barack Obama at the “Saddleback Civil Forum on the Presidency,” held last August at Warren’s Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California.
“I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” Obama quickly answered. Obama added that he opposed a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as he does, but on the basic issue, Obama and Warren agreed: marriage equals one man and one woman.
So why is it a matter of great controversy that Obama has invited Warren to give the invocation on Inauguration Day? Warren is, after all, one of the most important evangelical leaders in America. Obama felt the evangelical vote was important enough to visit Saddleback Church not once but twice during the campaign. In addition, Obama had a rather problematic relationship with his own longtime pastor, Rev. Jeremiah “God damn America” Wright; inviting Wright to give the invocation would have been suicidal. So why not Warren?
There’s no doubt gay activists within the Democratic coalition would have opposed the choice under any circumstances. But coming after the passage of Proposition 8 in California — a measure Warren strongly supported — the choice of Warren is provoking intense anger. Prop 8 opponents have targeted and harassed Prop 8 supporters and contributors all around California, and in some other states as well. It’s no surprise they would react angrily to the choice of Warren. But this time the target is also Obama, the gay-marriage opponent they supported for president.
“President-Elect Obama has chosen a man who has been a general in the culture war against LGBT people as the person he wants to be the representative of the totality of our nation from a spiritual perspective,” Brad Luna, the director of communications for the Human Rights Campaign, told me Thursday. “Rick Warren is somebody who has opposed our equality, who has equated our relationships to marriage between a brother and a sister, who has equated our lives and sexuality with pedophilia.” In picking Warren, Luna told me, Obama has made a “very cynical” choice.
Obama doesn’t seem to think so. At his news conference Thursday, the president-elect said that he, Obama, had been invited to speak at Warren’s church, despite their disagreements, so it was only reasonable that Obama include Warren in the inauguration. And besides, Obama said, Rev. Joseph Lowery, the civil-rights legend, will deliver the benediction, so “there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented.”
Lowery has been an advocate, of sorts, for gay marriage. In 2004, he told the Associated Press that he was “in the valley of prayer on the issue of gay marriage,” but added that he chose to “err on the side of inclusiveness, not exclusion.” Still, for whatever his degree of support for gay marriage, Lowery has declined to equate the movements for black and gay rights. “Homosexuals as people have never been enslaved because of their sexual orientation,” he told the AP. “They may have been scorned; they may have been discriminated against. But they’ve never been enslaved and declared less than human.”
For some gay groups, the inclusion of Lowery doesn’t undo what they see as the damage done by the Warren invitation. “To say that we’re going to kick off the program with a known homophobe and end it with somebody who’s good on our issues doesn’t really cut it for us,” Luna told me. “I don’t think any Jewish Americans would feel much comfort in knowing that an anti-Semite is starting the inauguration with an invocation, but we’re going to end it with a rabbi.”
Still, why are gay groups so angry, knowing that Obama opposes gay marriage? In the end, it seems that the reason for the anger is that, no matter what Obama says, a number of gay activists appear to believe the president-elect is, deep down, with them on the issue. “He’s stated his support for the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, he spoke out against Proposition 8, he’s against the Federal Marriage Amendment, he’s for full civil unions and domestic partnerships, he’s for the repeal of Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell,” Luna said. “He’s with us on all the issues of concern to our community except classifying relationships with the term marriage.” So what if Obama says he believes marriage is between one man and one woman; his positions, especially his support of repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, seem to suggest otherwise. That’s why the choice of Warren seemed such a betrayal.
So now more liberal Obama supporters find themselves wondering what the president-elect truly believes. “The larger reason I’m so upset with Obama over this decision [is] I actually trusted the guy,” wrote the gay blogger John Aravosis. “I know, stupid me.”