Why has President-elect Obama selected famous homophobe and creationist, Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life, to deliver the invocation on Inauguration Day? Understandably, gay and civil rights groups are expressing their outrage at the choice. On the surface, the decision does appear a cynical political ploy to win the loyalty of hotly contested evangelical Christian voters, while taking for granted (even smacking in the face) the progressive base that worked tirelessly to elect a President Obama. As a member of that progressive base, I have to believe that Obama's governing skills are as nuanced and astute as I thought they were in February 2007, when I signed up to volunteer for his campaign.
Barack Obama is smarter than we are. It's an unfamiliar concept, after the last 8 years of non-leadership we've endured as a nation. He draws on historic precedents for contemporary political wisdom. Famously, his selection of cabinet members from the left and right ends of the political spectrum hearkens back to Abraham Lincoln's "team of rivals." But there may be another precedent at work here - that of Nelson Mandela and the Springboks, South Africa's white supremacist rugby team. In his book, Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Made a Nation, John Carlin describes how Mandela sparked controversy by sporting the Springbok jersey, despite the all-white team's history of singing racist anthems at their games. Nelson Mandela's efforts integrated the team and its fan base, and helped unite the nation. In fact, in numerous arenas, Mandela embraced figures hateful to black South Africans, in order forge longer-term consensus.
Like South Africa's white elite, America's evangelical Christians are a minority, but a minority with disproportionate cultural and social sway. In fact, they are a much larger minority than South Africa's white population ever was, which, at its max, numbered around 20%. According to an ABC News poll, taken in June, the United States is 83% Christian. 37% of American Christians consider themselves "born-again" or "evangelical." That's almost 31% percent, a third, of the country. A Gallup poll taken in May reveals that 44% of Americans believe that "God created man in his present form." That's 13% percent "non-evangelicals" agreeing with the creationist worldview. Furthermore, according to a recent Gallup poll, 48% of Americans believe homosexuality is "unacceptable," and 57% in a Pew poll oppose gay marriage, though fewer oppose "civil unions."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Census Bureau evaluates the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender demographic to be around 1.51% of the population. As someone who has spent most of her life in major urban centers, and in the arts, at that, I find that piddling number impossible to believe and imagine that there are a lot of "Brokeback" gays living in silence in more remote parts of the country. If every one were honest, the LGBT demographic would probably prove considerably larger. Nonetheless, I doubt it would approach the numbers of creationists and evangelicals, who, because they take the Bible as the literal word of God written perfectly in heaven, rather than by fallible men here on earth, believe homosexuality is an abomination.
For the record, let me state unequivocally that I believe homophobia is an abomination. I believe heart and soul that the LGBT population deserve the right to marry - and deserve all requisite spousal benefits - just as black people and women deserved the right to vote before they won it. And indeed, Obama's choice to lead the taskforce for the Inaugural benediction, Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights leader, agrees with me.
Pastor Rick Warren, however, emphatically does not. But he does agree with a majority of the American population. Barack Obama lies somewhere in the middle, supporting civil unions and spousal benefits, but not marriage, for the LGBT population. While I find Rick Warren's homophobia abhorrent and his creationism impossible, I recognize that he helped Obama double the number of evangelical voters in certain states from what Kerry garnered in 2004 - key states, such as Indiana, Florida and Colorado that helped Obama win the election. Barack Obama and I disagree fundamentally on certain issues, but what he achieves so spectacularly, beyond any American figure in my lifetime, is the ability to help us transcend our differences by appealing to our common values.
People will argue that they do not share any values with Pastor Rick Warren, who compares abortion to the Holocaust and calls for the assassination of Ahmadinejad. But if we can enfold his numerous followers into our political dialogue, let them get to know us of all stripes, perhaps we can begin to wear away some of the myths and misconceptions that disconnect us. If we continue to push away those who disagree with us, we will entrench ourselves deeper and deeper in the divisions that have gotten us nowhere. Obama's campaign proved that reaching out to those with whom we differ achieves the advancement of the progressive agenda - incrementally, rather than all in one fell swoop.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela relates how he repeatedly experienced the wrath of his own supporters, during his nearly 30 years in prison, for extending olive branches to the Apartheid government. But only through the gesture of reaching out to the opposing force was he able to dismantle it. I hope that's what President-elect Obama has in mind.