Purpose-driven symbolic gesture

55505654Believe it or not, I don't have a whole lot to say about the mini-media flap about President-elect Barack Obama's decision to ask his best evangelical buddy, that would be the Rev. Rick Warren, to offer the invocation on Jan. 20. Just imagine what the coverage will be like if Warren utters the J-word or prays that American will work for justice for all, born and unborn or something like that. The press coverage has focused on anger on the secular and lifestyle left, as you would expect. Behind the scenes, you know that there are evangelical activists who are steamed, as well. You may want to keep your eye on The Brody File over at CBN.

Obama has defended the decision by playing the diversity card, saying that this is part of his efforts to dialogue with those who disagree with him in an atmosphere of respect. Here's some sample coverage at the Washington Post:

"I am a fierce advocate of equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on and something that I intend to continue to be consistent on in my presidency," Obama said at a morning news conference to announce several financial appointments. "What I've also said is that it is important for American to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues."

Gay rights advocates and progressives denounced the decision to associate with Warren, an outspoken opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, immediately after inaugural organizers announced the lineup for the ceremony yesterday. The Human Rights Campaign sent a blistering letter to Obama (D) in which it called the choice of Warren "a genuine blow" to gay Americans, who supported Obama overwhelmingly in his race against Republican nominee John McCain.

The letter noted Warren's vocal support of California's Proposition 8, a ballot measure banning gay marriage in the state that was approved by California voters last month. "By inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table," the letter said.

The question, of course, is whether Obama will go beyond symbolism into discussions of actual political compromise. That's the true danger zone. The only story here is that mere symbolism is already dangerous for the people on both extremes.

The Post did nod in the direction of Warren as a more mature, nuanced brand of evangelical:

Warren has been credited with helping to broaden evangelicals' focus on such social issues as gay rights and abortion to include global warming, poverty and the AIDS epidemic. He drew criticism from many evangelicals when he invited Obama to his conference on AIDS in 2006. But he has earned the ire of liberals with his opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and stem-cell research -- stances that are well in line with his faith as a Southern Baptist preacher.

Obama told reporters that he appreciated Warren's invitation to speak at the his church "despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his" on gay rights and abortion. "Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to speak," Obama said. "And that dialogue has been part of what my campaign is all about."

One of the best roundups of the anger on the left is at The Politico, which pulled that angle out into a stand-alone story. I think that was a valid decision, in this case. After all, Obama was sinning for a second time on this issue, as he tries to stay in touch with mainstream evangelical churches, white and black:

The rapid, angry reaction from a range of gay activists comes as the gay rights movement looks for an opportunity to flex its political muscle. Last summer gay groups complained, but were rebuffed by Obama, when an "ex-gay" singer led Obama's rallies in South Carolina. And many were shocked last month when voters approved the California ban.

Meanwhile, this is one of those stories that make me thankful for cyberspace and interactive weblogs. It's nice to see tons of links in one place.

I mean, check out our friend Steven Waldman's piece on this flap, over at Beliefnet. Much like Obama, he respects Warren as a worthy opponent on some issues and a valuable ally on others. That sounds like this:

... Warren has used his fame and fortune primarily to help the most destitute people in the world. He reverse tithes, giving away 90% and keeping 10%. Please contemplate all the religious figures who have gotten rich off their flock and pocketed the money. Who among you reverse tithe or would if you were rich? I know I don't, and every time I think about what Warren has done it makes me question whether I'm giving enough. That is a Christ-like example.

Second, he's worked hard to get other conservative evangelicals to care more about poverty. Some on the left had hopes that Warren would somehow move evangelicals to the left on social issues. They were confusing temperamental with political moderation. Just because Warren is a nice guy, greets you with a hug, used to wear Hawaiian shirts, and cares about the poor, doesn't mean he's a political liberal or even moderate. He's not. But it's in part because he's conservative on everything else that his views on poverty carry such weight in the evangelical community.

Read it all. And, while you are at it, chase this link over to Andrew Sullivan and contemplate this question: Can Warren be accused of hate speech? Does Obama want to associate with that?

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