At his press conference on Thursday, Barack Obama for the first time addressed the flurry of protest that has erupted over the choice of Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation.
Stressing his own advocacy of equal rights for gay and lesbian Americans, the president-elect raised a relevant anecdote from his biography as a defense.
"A couple of years ago I was invited to Rick Warren's church to speak despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion," he said. "Nevertheless I had an opportunity to speak, and that dialogue I think is part of what my campaign's been all about, that we're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans."
The remarks came after progressives and, in particular, the gay and lesbian community criticized the president-elect's decision to give such a prominent role to a pastor whose views on torture, gay rights, and stem cell research don't align with Obama's stated agenda.
Indeed, the backlash against the Warren selection has been swift and fierce, putting Obama's inauguration team largely on the defensive. A source sent over a copy of talking points making the rounds among the president-elect's staff in order to rebut these critiques. A transition official would not confirm or dispute the material, but did acknowledge that it sounded "an awful lot like what I have been saying."
• This will be the most open, accessible, and inclusive Inauguration in American history.
• In keeping with the spirit of unity and common purpose this Inauguration will reflect, the President-elect and Vice President-elect have chosen some of the world's most gifted artists and people with broad appeal to participate in the inaugural ceremonies.
• Pastor Rick Warren has a long history of activism on behalf of the disadvantaged and the downtrodden. He's devoted his life to performing good works for the poor and leads the evangelical movement in addressing the global HIV/AIDS crisis. In fact, the President-elect recently addressed Rick Warren's Saddleback Civil Forum on Global Health to salute Warren's leadership in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and pledge his support to the effort in the years ahead.
• The President-elect disagrees with Pastor Warren on issues that affect the LGBT community. They disagree on other issues as well. But what's important is that they agree on many issues vital to the pursuit of social justice, including poverty relief and moving toward a sustainable planet; and they share a commitment to renewing America's promise by expanding opportunity at home and restoring our moral leadership abroad.
• As he's said again and again, the President-elect is committed to bringing together all sides of the faith discussion in search of common ground. That's the only way we'll be able to unite this country with the resolve and common purpose necessary to solve the challenges we face.
• The Inauguration will also involve Reverend Joseph Lowery, who will be delivering the official benediction at the Inauguration. Reverend Lowery is a giant of the civil rights movement who boasts a proudly progressive record on LGBT issues. He has been a leader in the struggle for civil rights for all Americans, gay or straight.
• And for the very first time, there will be a group representing the interests of LGBT Americans participating in the Inaugural Parade.
The inclusion of Rev. Joseph Lowery, an icon of the civil rights movement and a respected progressive voice is, perhaps, the Obama team's most obvious defense. One progressive pastor I spoke with on Wednesday, who was critical of the Warren selection, said she would have been fine had the two pastors merely switched spots in the program.
But the inclusiveness of the inauguration is an important point to stress as well. At his 2005 inaugural, George W. Bush tapped Rev. Dr. Louis Leon to deliver the invocation. Like Obama and Warren, the two shared a commitment to combating AIDS in Africa, as well as a friendship from time spent in each other's company. But Leon was and is a progressive voice. And his selection in '04 sparked a lot of interest, though little of the outrage that we see with Warren.