THE BLOG
01/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Transcendental Invocation: Surprise Me, Rick Warren!

Nearly two weeks after Barack Obama stunned his most passionate supporters by announcing his choice of Rev. Rick Warren to make the invocation at Obama's inauguration, you'd expect the thing to have blown over. That it has not says as much about the American people as does our election of Barack Obama, of which we like to think as the expression of the better angels of our nature.

Count me among those who felt stung, yea, smitten, by the announcement. As you've no doubt heard countless times by now, Warren didn't simply support Proposition 8, the ballot measure that overturned same-sex marriage in California -- he grouped same-sex unions in a category of unacceptable institutions that includes polygamy and marriage between an adult and a child. Perhaps you heard, as well, that Warren compares abortion to the Holocaust, and describes pro-choice advocates as "Holocaust deniers." For many of us who supported Obama vociferously during the campaign, this all feels a bit personal. Still, I know that simmering in this stew leaves me no path to redemption. And a sense of redemption, deserved or not, is part of what made election night so glorious for so many of us.

I'm just not quite there yet. "I don't even want to go to this inauguration now," I told one friend. Trust me, reader, that's a sentiment of extreme deflation, so excited have I been, so looking forward to a transcendent moment on the Mall with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, straining for a glimpse at a Jumbotron amid children and grandmas as they jockey for position. And still a bitter taste laces my tongue when I imagine Warren at the microphone, calling for the blessing of a God he believes sanctions bigotry against queer folk, a God who would deny a woman her bodily integrity, a God who demands that Jews and other non-Christians burn in Hell. Not my God, thank God.

It's the God thing that really gets me. Invite Warren to the ceremony, fine. Have him do a reading of some sort, even -- a verse of universal truth from the Book of Proverbs or something. But elevate him to the stature of holy man -- the priest empowered to call down the spirit? Barack, you ask so much.

For more than 10 days, I have tried to figure out just what Obama might be up to with his pick of Warren. The simple and obvious answer doesn't quite sit right -- that he intended this to be a unifying gesture, a sweep of the olive branch to the people who did not vote for him. But, as Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) said, the selection of Warren is "socially disruptive". If anything, the howl sent up from the LGBT community, along with the objections voiced by feminists Katha Pollitt, Linda Hirshman and Sarah Posner, have emboldened the right. As soon as gay groups registered, via statements and press releases, their opposition to the Warren pick, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins sent out a missive to followers citing one gay leader's opposition to the Warren pick as proof positive of "the homosexual desire to silence the Church."

In fact, the predictable back-and-forth between left and right around this issue leads me in moments when my worser angels -- you know, the less-than-angelic angels -- of my nature have my ear to wonder whether or not we just got Souljahed out. Would Obama step on our tails to make us squeal so that he might look "normal" to the pro-America parts of the country?

Let's consider another alternative -- please. Like any council of chiefs, the leadership of the religious right is often riven with jealousy and competition, as well as ideological differences between purists and pragmatists. Mainstream media have latched onto Warren's AIDS-fighting work in Africa and his preaching on environmental responsibility as evidence of his ostensibly kinder, gentler biblical Christianity though, by his own admission, the difference between Warren and authoritarian right-wing media mogul James Dobson is merely one of "tone". Yet Warren isn't really *of* the clique of religious-right leaders as we've come to know them: the Dobson mob, the Robertson cabal, the Falwell gang. (These form the syndicate that holds the rights to the GOP's electoral ground game; it is through their churches and associations that grass roots activists and voters are turned out.)

With his 25 million books sold and four megachurches with congregations in the tens of thousands, there's likely a bit of resentment against Warren among the council of elder pooh-bahs. (In his e-mail to followers, Tony Perkins snipes, "Let's hope that Rick Warren will use his channel of communication to the new President to press him for more pro-family policies-rather than simply being used by Mr. Obama to make political inroads with evangelicals.")

If the campaign revealed anything about the president-elect, it is his use of existing dynamics to his own advantage, knowing when to get out of the way of -- or lend a hand to -- Nature as she takes her course. The leaders of the religious right are far less dangerous to the rest of us when sniping among themselves. Could it be that, in elevating Warren so high above the rest, Obama has tossed an apple of discord over the right fence, a clever bait of distraction?

Perhaps I think too wishfully as I look to find a reason to believe.

Over the days since Obama announced the honor he conferred on Rick Warren, I have engaged at least a dozen friends and colleagues in discussions where I vent my fury, listen carefully, vent some more -- all in the hope of ultimately letting go. After all, like just about everybody, I really want this Obama thing to work.

The sage Todd Gitlin urges us to voice our complaint and move on. But moving on doesn't move me. I want my transcendent moment. First, it seems, I'll have to transcend my damn self.

In an otherwise critical post, Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky warily suggests an outside chance that Warren's stance might change through the experience of calling the blessing on the Obama presidency:

Maybe having given this "Holocaust denier" [Obama] his high-profile blessing will require over time that Warren moderate his views and his public posture, and maybe that would lead some portion of his flock to do the same.

Jim Toevs of the Seattle Gay News suggests that Warren's increased contact, due to the controversy, with gay people may even transform him into a gay ally.

An artist friend who wished not to be named ("Call me Wes and keep me out of that mess!") took it one step further. "How do you know, Adele, that that moment, when that man is on that stage, lookin' out on all those people -- how do you know that will not be his transcendent moment? Think of all the people he could move."

From your lips, Wes, to the ears of all that is Divine. Divisions -- especially over what God wants us to do -- are rarely overcome with an argument or a handshake. That's why our better angels have wings; to help us rise above. Here's to transcendence all around.

For solid suggestions for what the LGBT community might ask of the Obama administration in light of the honor granted Rick Warren, check out Joan Garry's post, "Constructive Impatience".