Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Does Rick Warren Represent the "Black American Soul" on Gay Marriage?

The buzz over Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the inaugural prayer continues. Readers of my op-ed in today's Philadelphia Inquirer are filling my inbox and the Inquirer on-line comments board with their reactions. The commentators on the message board stopped writing directly about my argument sometime around 7:00am this morning. Since then the comment board (76 comments and counting) has turned into a forum for bashing Warren and his supposedly intolerant views.

One thing is clear: there are a lot of people, particularly in the LGBT community, who feel Obama has betrayed them. It is understandable that they are lashing out.

In my opinion, the New Republic has offered the best coverage of the Obama-Warren controversy. I have already commented here on the Alan Wolfe's thought provoking piece. Today, the NR has included articles by Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne (it is actually a reprint of his regular Post column) and Manhattan Institute fellow John McWhorter.

Dionne's article, "Big Tent," make perfect sense. Like Wolfe, Dionne understands that Rick Warren is not your run of the mill member of the Religious Right. He has been at the forefront of a move to expand the evangelical agenda beyond opposition to gay marriage and abortion. He wants that agenda to include the fight against poverty, the war on global AIDS, and a concern with global warming. Dionne rightly asks Warren to apologize for comparing gays to pedophiles, but because of Warren's commitment to social justice, Dionne believes that "inviting Warren (to pray) opens more doors than it closes."

Dionne sees the irony in the liberal attacks on Warren. He writes:

But a more benign view on parts of the religious left casts Warren as the evangelical best positioned to lead moderately conservative white Protestants toward a greater engagement with the issues of poverty and social justice, and away from a relentless focus on abortion and gay marriage.

Part of this irony, at least as I see it, is that prior to his support of Proposition 8 Rick Warren was a media darling. He was an evangelical that even some liberals could stomach. He was heralded as a new sort of evangelical who transcended party politics and was sympathetic to the concerns of liberals. This reputation has now been tarnished a bit, but Dionne reminds us that Warren is still the kind of guy who Obama should keep close. As I argued in today's Inquirer, I think Dionne is on the mark here.

John McWhorter, an African-American conservative and an Obama supporter in the 2008 election, approaches the Obama-Warren controversy from a different perspective. In his essay "Into the Fold," McWhorter argues that "Rick Warren is every bit as much in line with the black American soul as his fellow inaugural performer, Aretha Franklin." He reminds us that 70% of black voters in California joined Rick Warren in their support of Proposition 8 and thus suggests that Rev. Joseph Lowery, the pro-choice, pro gay marriage African American pastor who will pray the closing prayer at the inauguration, does not represent all African-Americans on social issues.

McWhorter describes how many progressives probably feel about the large number of African-Americans opposed to gay marriage:

No doubt, given the moral triumph of the Civil Rights revolution in teaching us to rise against bigotry, many blacks' turfy resistance to gay people portraying their cause as a Civil Rights struggle is, frankly, embarrassing.

Today in the Inquirer I wondered why liberals did not raise opposition to Billy Graham's long history of inauguration prayers and sermons. McWhorter offers an equally compelling, albeit hypothetical, situation. Would there be as much outrage if Obama had chosen someone like T.D. Jakes to give the inaugural prayer? He writes:

Suppose Obama had invited black megastar preacher T.D. Jakes instead. Jakes heads a 30,000 member Dallas church, reaches millions more with the television show The Potter's Touch, and was designated "perhaps the most influential black leader in America" by The Atlantic. His church runs outreach programs as well as anti-poverty efforts in Africa. Yet like Warren, Jakes dissociates himself from those who "support abortion, homosexuality and other things I see as unscriptural."

Still, I suspect that progressives' reaction to Jakes' inclusion would be vastly less indignant. Surely the justification for that view would not be that black people, shall we say, "cling to" religion because of the exigencies of their past and present. No--there would be a sense that for a black preacher, views like Jakes's were something to let pass as "diverse," unsurprising in a pastor of any color, with his presence as an articulate and inspiring figure in black America more important than ideological details at such a momentous event. Why must Warren be fumigated against, then? Because as a white person, he's supposed to know better? What other difference between Warren and Jakes is so crucial?

Both Dionne and McWhorter give us a lot to think about. Both of their pieces move beyond polemics and Warren-bashing to bring some thoughtful commentary to this debate.