When I first read Melissa Etheridge's post about the selection of Rick Warren for Obama's inauguration, I agreed with her. After all, opposing sides can only find peace and compromise if they are able to be reasonable, engage in discourse and show some level of tolerance. Right? Warren has expressed regret for his comments equating gay marriage with pedophilia and incest. He has stated that he harbors no ill will to the gay community and that "every loving relationship should have equal protection." This sounds reasonable to me. So, maybe Ms. Etheridge is right. Maybe we should support his speaking at the inauguration. Why not open our arms and welcome him?
Melissa Etheridge is dead wrong.
Yes, Rick Warren presents himself as a reasonable, thoughtful and even mostly accepting man. That's precisely the problem. If he were a fire-breathing proselytizer he would be easy to dismiss. But in his "open arms and open heart" approach, he appears to be someone with whom it's possible to reason and perhaps, one day, even find middle ground.
Now, I haven't met Rick Warren, but I did have an experience that illustrates precisely why in the continuing struggle to secure rights on the marriage front for all Americans we should not confuse civil engagement with becoming pals.
To set some context, I'm a newly hatched political activist. I've always been politically aware and educated but never really engaged. This year's political cycle changed that, but the change happened late. On election night as I watched the returns, I struggled between incredible elation over Obama's victory and the shattering disappointment of loss on Proposition 8. I went to bed depressed and awakened with a strange surge of resolve. It was time to get involved. So I did.
Fast forward to January 3, 2009 and the inaugural edition of EqualityCamp -- the first major off-line effort to join the digital denizens of the marriage equality movement with their carbon-based world counterparts. My co-organizers and I spent considerable effort crafting the outreach for this event. We were determined to go beyond the "usual suspects" from the gay community and gather people from many walks of life, gay and straight, married and single, from the technologically adept to the digitally challenged.
We also got some unexpected visitors -- The Rev. Chauncey Killens and two of his colleagues from the Soul Church of God and Christ in Prunedale, CA. Their ministry has committed to show up at all public events related to overturning Proposition 8 within a three-hour drive.
Killens and his associates came into the room, looked around and walked out, but one of my co-organizers, Tara Hunt, sprinted out the door after them (in heels no less), and they agreed to come back in and talk.
And talk we did.
For about an hour a rotating group of people gathered around the six-foot-plus, lanky preacher and engaged in what was, at times, slightly heated debate. Throughout it all, everyone remained polite, civil and friendly. But when it came to the point about allowing two, consenting adults who happened to be of the same sex to have the same rights to marry as two consenting adults of the opposite sex, it was as though we were speaking two entirely different languages. There was zero wiggle room.
The rest of the conversation went pretty much as you might expect. We spoke in circles. The EqualityCampers trying to explain that we're not talking about invading church doctrine, we're talking about giving the same privileges and protections to all consenting adults who want to marry -- regardless of sexual preference. The Reverend insisting that marriage is something already defined by God and that to allow same-sex marriage will be to open the door to allow incest, pedophilia and polygamy.
Yet we continued to talk, eat lunch and even offered our guests some wedding cake that one of the attendees had brought from her recent nuptials. (I was quick to inform The Reverend that he didn't need to worry, the cake was from a straight wedding.)
Finally, they left and after several rounds of chats with others in the room, I found myself thinking about what Melissa Etheridge had said about Rick Warren. And my blood began to boil.
It's not that Warren doesn't seem charming. It's not that he's necessarily even a bad person. It's that in accepting him the way she did, she is giving an implicit buy-in to his not-always-well-camouflaged bigotry. And by putting him at the lectern for the inauguration Obama does the same.
The point here isn't that we shouldn't talk. We should. And while it may seem that I hold them in disdain based on some verbiage choice in this commentary, the truth is I do appreciate that people like Warren and Killens are proactively stepping forward. I do appreciate they are willing to at least talk in a civilized fashion rather than demonizing the gay community or condemning us from their pulpits. And I am willing to engage in those discussions, as frustrating and fruitless as they may seem.
But that is a wholly separate issue from having someone like Warren highlighted during one of the most important events that takes place in this nation -- the swearing in of our leader.