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Wayne Besen Headshot

The Rick Warren Whirlwind

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It could be that Barack Obama is simply smarter than the rest of us. The first black president of the Harvard Law Review has made a career of turning conventional wisdom on its head.

When people said that America was not ready for an African American president, he ran anyway -- and won. He was counseled by countless talking heads to "go negative" against Hillary Clinton in the primaries and then John McCain -- but he largely stuck to his strategy of staying positive -- and won. In the middle of the campaign, Obama hit an iceberg named Rev. Jeremiah Wright, injecting race into a campaign that had desperately tried to shy away from this explosive issue. Obama discarded advice to spin the crisis and instead delivered a lecture on race relations that has gone down as one of the greatest speeches in the history of American politics - not to mention it saved his campaign. So, at this point in his rocket-propelled career, it is unwise to bet against the political instincts of Barack Obama.

Still, choosing pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration seemed like a gaffe that has served, if nothing else, as a distraction to Obama's central message of unifying America. This olive branch to evangelical Christians, who largely supported John McCain, felt more like poison ivy to gay and lesbian voters, who overwhelmingly cast ballots for Obama.

After all, Warren has a program to "help" homosexuals "pray away the gay" and played a prominent role in passing Proposition 8, which prohibits same-sex couples from marrying in California. He has even compared same-sex couples marrying to incest and child abuse.

Even if scientists find that homosexuality is genetic, Warren would still counsel gay people to fight their "sin," reducing our love to nothing more than perverted impulses. While Warren presumably gets his basic needs met by his wife, he expects gay people to abandon fulfilling relationships for dour lives of loneliness, severe depression and suicidal thoughts.

Obama can talk about unity all he wants, but what he is really doing is upholding the "Great Gay Exception. Obama would never have an anti-Semite on stage in the name of common ground. If so, why did he distance himself from fellow Chicagoan Louis Farrakhan during his campaign? Obama would also never dream of giving a platform to an open racist. But, Obama seems to think we should not object to him elevating Warren, who we find deeply offensive.

My hope is that Obama's plan is to offer heavy doses of symbolism and style to power hungry preachers, like Warren -- while delivering substantive policy achievements to the gay and lesbian community. When gay and lesbian leaders reacted with understandable indignation, Obama's rebuttal was, people need to "learn to agree to disagree without being disagreeable."

This phrase, that many Evangelicals are nodding their heads to in agreement, is a rhetorical trap. If they agree to this principle over the Warren flap, they have essentially forfeited their moral high ground if they get "disagreeable" when Congress passes a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The only flaw in this logic is that social conservatives rarely play by the same rules because they think they represent God. It is possible that Obama may have outsmarted himself by appealing to his sanctimonious enemies, who will never return the favor, while forfeiting support among his closest friends.

But, then again, maybe he really can buy goodwill by stroking the egos of narcissistic holy men. Rick Warren begins his best selling book The Purpose Driven Life with the refrain, "this is not about you." Of course not! It's always been about Rick Warren - whose camera-ready compassion is legendary.

If any good can come from this controversy, it is that many Americans now realize that Warren is masquerading as a moderate and posing as a pragmatist. Many Americans -- who previously respected Warren -- now view him as a poll-tested Pat Robertson who hides hate behind a Hawaiian shirt. He seemed arrogant and out of touch on NBC's Dateline when he told Ann Curry that he wasn't homophobic because he provided protesters outside his church with doughnuts. Gee, thanks, maybe next time you take away our rights we'll get ice cream from His holiness.

The alternative storyline is really unthinkable.

In this version, Obama cynically used gay and lesbian people for money, votes and volunteers. Then before he is sworn in, he swears off equality. This plot was certainly advanced when not a single openly gay person was appointed to a high-level cabinet position.

Within a year, we will learn whether Obama's decision to choose Warren was cagey, careless or cruel. If it is the former, we will soon view this cultural flashpoint as a flash in the pan. If it is the latter, it will cause an explosion of gay activism, giving many people who were previously apolitical, purpose driven lives -- protesting Barack Obama.