By the time of the Presidential inauguration, we should have had enough controversy about Barack Obama and Rick Warren. I don't mean to belittle the criticism as much as to suggest that the grumbling about Obama's invitation even before he has assumed the presidency seemed rather excessive. If it was not about Warren, then it has been about Caroline Kennedy or Obama's choice of cabinet members or his other appointees to the White House staff. You'd think the critics would not be happy unless or until Noam Chomsky was named press secretary.
Like so many Evangelical preachers, Warren's rhetoric in the past has been over the top. Sometimes, his carelessness made him sound like a windbag and a jerk to boot. The statements attributed to him about Jews, gays and lesbians were repulsive and unacceptable to me and any rational people of whom I know, especially coming from a man who will bless the podium where Barack Obama will be sworn in as the nation's 44th president. But we also know that the election of our next president has re-gained respect around the world for the United States that had been lost for a long time, thanks to George Bush..
Obama is a compromiser, a political figure committed to building bridges, even to those who will give him heartburn as well as their support. So his well-intended critics need to give him some space. He'll catch enough hell from the Republicans and other malcontents once the presidential honeymoon is over. The social conservatives who believe it's their God-given right to tell their fellow Americans what to think and how to live won't let a Sunday go by without unleashing some of their sanctimonious bombast.
In a nation that cherishes freedom of speech, we cannot change that.
But I've been around pollsters long enough to know that many of those same pastors would be shocked to hear that an overwhelming number of Americans would probably tell them to mind their own business and keep their noses out of our bedrooms and classrooms.
Rick Warren was unknown to most people until Obama's invitation became public. Only the chattering class thought it was worth significant commentary once the story broke. But remember folks, it's only an invocation that Warren will be delivering on January 20th; perhaps two or three minutes long; It's not the Gettysburg Address. But suddenly, the Orange County pastor was sought after by the nationwide media. Some Warren's lookalikes in the commercial prayer business were flustered by his acceptance of the Obama invitation. Holy God, they thought he had joined the enemy camp. Hard as it is to believe, even a ghost from the past, Phyllis Schlafly, came out of the woodwork to denounce Warren when he invited her to speak to his congregation two years ago. Yet, by comparison, Warren is considered more moderate than a majority of the nation's evangelical pastors.
But as it turns out, the image of Warren standing within inches of the incoming president also alarmed and angered advocates of gay and lesbian rights, supporters of abortion rights, human rights and spokesmen for Jewish communities across the country. Perhaps they forgot that Obama visited Warren's church during the election campaign and they managed to have a civil conversation in front of a lot of his Orange County parishoners, many of whom couldn't stand Obama's guts.
In response to the criticism of having Warren participate in the Inaugural ceremony, the President-elect issued this statement on Christmas Day which in part said:
"A couple of years ago I was invited to Rick Warren's church to speak despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion. Nevertheless I had an opportunity to speak, and that dialogue I think is part of what my campaign's been all about, that we're not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans."
Granted, we are still waiting for him to reconsider some of his comparisons that insulted many Jews by linking candidates who support abortion with those who operated the gas chambers during the Holocaust. It was not only an outrageous and insensitive comparison. It smacked of blatant anti-Semitism.
But gradually, Warren has begun to temper his rhetoric by urging worshippers to help alleviate hunger, to control the spread of AIDS and assist in the campaign to cope with illiteracy in Rwanda. He has even apologized to thousands of delegates to an international Baptist convention to concern themselves more with "deeds not creeds." Moreover, he delivered a conciliatory message to a gathering of Muslim community leaders a few weeks ago and he engaged in friendly conversations with liberal clergymen in the Los Angeles area. The fact that his wife subsequently was diagnosed with breast cancer, he says, may have contributed to his growing moderation.
For eight years of enduring George Bush as president, Americans have tolerated the erosion of their democratic rights. But with a trained lawyer about to occupy the White House, we may finally have someone who intimately understands the nature of our Constitution. Hopefully, he will have the opportunity to select a number of like-minded candidates to the U.S. Supreme Court during his presidency who will recognize the difference between church and state.. At least, we can rest assured that there will be a safer guardian of the freedoms that guarantee our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those Evangelical pastors who want to control our personal conduct were notably silent when it came to criticizing the lies President Bush told us in order to justify the war in Iraq. They were mute when the shocking revelations at Guantanamo began to surface. Across the country, these preachers have spent more hours butting into our private lives than offering comfort to tens of thousands of people whose hopes of fulfilling the American dream of home ownership and a steady job have been shattered by our mushrooming recession. We can only hope that a moderate number of these apostles of outrage finally will come to the realization that this nation needs a more sensible agenda of faith. That would underscore the motive behind Barack Obama's invitation to Rick Warren.