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Marc Gunther Headshot

Obama, Rick Warren and Me

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Rick Warren is one the most likable people I've ever met. We traveled to Rwanda together back in 2005, and spent time at Saddleback Church. I came away impressed with his big heart, his passion, his smarts and his long-running effort to broaden the political agenda of evangelical Christians to include the issues of global poverty, AIDS and the environment.

But Barack Obama made a mistake by selecting Warren, the nation's most influential religious leader, to give the invocation at his inaugural. The choice has rightfully angered gay and lesbian Americans. People who care deeply about abortion rights are pleased either.

As it happens, I don't think Rick's views on abortion should disqualify him from speaking at the inaugural. As Obama said, while defending the choice at a press conference earlier today, "it is important for America to come together, even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues." Fair enough -- we can agree to disagree respectfully about abortion, as much as our views are strongly held. (You can read Obama's full answer here.)

The gay rights issue is different. Having Rick Warren give the invocation, at an event that should be a celebration for all Americans, is an insult to tens of millions of LGBT people. I don't believe that Rick is a bigot, or that he holds any personal animus towards gay people. But his interpretation of the Bible, which he believes to be the word of God, has led him to believe that gay and lesbian relationships are fundamentally wrong.

I quoted him to that effect in my Fortune story, Will Success Spoil Rick Warren?, as John Cloud of Time noted in an excellent column published today:

About three years ago, a reporter at Fortune asked Rick Warren -- the successful pastor whom the President-elect has asked to pray at his inauguration -- about homosexuality. "I'm no homophobic guy," Warren said. His proof? He had dined with gays; he has a church "full of people who are caring for gays who are dying of AIDS"; he believes that "in the hierarchy of evil... homosexuality is not the worst sin." So gays get to eat -- sometimes even with Rick Warren! Then they get to die of AIDS -- possibly under the care of Rick Warren's congregants. And when they go to hell, they won't be quite as far down in Satan's pit as other evildoers.

But Warren did have a message of hope for gays: they can magically become heterosexuals. (He didn't explain how, but I suspect he thinks praying really hard would do it, as though most of us who grew up gay and evangelical hadn't tried that every night as teenagers.) Homosexuality, Pastor Warren explained in the virtually content-free language of the dogmatist, is "not the natural way." And then he went right for the ick factor, the way middle-school boys do: "Certain body parts are meant to fit together."

When Rick and I discussed the issue -- always at my request -- I never felt he was mean-spirited. But I told him that his position provided cover for bigots, even for those commit acts of violence against gays. He replied by reminding me, accurately, that he has argued for years that evangelical Christians should talk a lot less about the hot-button social issues and a lot more about problems around which all Americans can unite, like poverty or the environment. "I'm a bridge builder, not a divider," he likes to say.

The trouble is, religious differences can't easily be bridged. The world's religions "totally contradict each other" and are "mutually exclusive" is how Rick put it to me back then. When we explored this further, he told me, cheerfully, that he thinks I'm going to hell because I haven't accepted Jesus Christ as my savior (I'm Jewish), but that doesn't mean we can't be friends. Trust me that he's a hard guy not to like.

The controversy over Obama's choice got me wondering: Is there any religious figure in America today who could give the invocation at an inaugural without making some people unhappy? I called my friend Donna Schaper to ask her. Donna's the senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, a liberal Protestant, progressive in her politics, and a gifted writer, speaker, gardener and mother. (I know this because she's married to my friend and college roommate, Warren Goldstein, a historian and the biographer of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin.) Donna said that it's possible to construct an ecumenical invocation, but very hard to find a single person to deliver the prayer who could appeal to all Americans.

When Donna leads prayers at public occasions, she talks about

God, whose name we do not and cannot know, whom some call Allah and some Spirit, whom some call Ruach and others Yahweh or Adonai, some call Jesus and some call Christ, others know only as Breath or Ruach, still others understand as energy or force, Thou who are nameless and properly so, draw near...

Rick, if you're reading this, there's an idea for you.

Donna has also been to events where four religious leaders -- Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim -- deliver prayers. "Then, of course, the Buddhists and Sikhs and others would be left out," she says.

Because she's an Obama fan, I asked Donna what she thought of the choice of Rick Warren. She admitted disappointment. "I'm still very pro-Obama, and he must have his reasons, but in addition to insulting women and gays, he missed a big opportunity," she told me. "He lost the chance to do something positive, and imaginative."

I agree. It's fine for Obama to invite Rick Warren to the White House, to enlist his help dealing with AIDS and to honor his work in Africa. Just don't put him on the podium on Inauguration Day, a day that is supposed to belong to all Americans.