Warren Pick Makes Us Ask: Will Obama Be Good for the Gays?

by Scott Stiffler

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday January 12, 2009

Regardless of your political affiliation, you've got to admire the efficiency of President-elect Obama. Although yet to be sworn in, he's already eclipsed Bill Clinton's handling of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" in terms committing an LGBT relations stumble right out of the gate.

With Clinton, it was a case of that old road to Hell being paved with good intentions. He took on the military establishment and its congressional advocates early in his administration. As a president-elect who was already held in suspicion on military matters, he lacked the credibility to integrate gay servicepeople into the Armed Forces. The result was a policy that has had the effect of satisfying no one.

In Obama's case, it is his controversial choice of Pastor Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation simply the extension of an olive branch to the religious right, as has been said (by his unofficial spokespeople and the press)? Or is it an ominous sign of things to come regarding the new administration's stance on LGBT issues?

Similar questions of tact and choice of battles must be posed to the gay community, which has come in for criticism in some quarters for a perceived overreaction to Warren's presence. (To be fair, several other commentators on the left side of the aisle have sided with gay activists.)

If one were to bother keeping score, however, we're represented by half of the ceremony's religious presence--in the form of Atlanta-based Joseph Lowery, a retired pro-gay rights African American Methodist pastor who'll give the benediction. Regarding Lowery, there's been no vocal opposition from the right to Lowery's presence because of his pro-gay stance. It has also been announced that Bishop Gene Robinson, the out-gay Episcopalian, has been invited by the Inaugural Committee to give the invocation at the start of the festivities.

Putting Warren 'In Context'-Or Not

"We need to put this into context. The President-elect is reaching out to a broad cross section of people." says Malcolm Lazin, executive director, of the Equality Forum.

"He indicated in his acceptance speech that he wanted to represent not just the 53 percent of Americans who voted for him, but the other 47 percent as well." For many of those forty seven percent, Lazin observes, "Rick Warren is a very well respected Evangelical Christian. He's clearly not a perfect choice, but it does demonstrate that the president elect wants to be inclusive."

But for Leah McElrath Renna (a managing partner at Renna Communications ), the choice of Warren was not "a brilliant strategic move as it's being spun." Evangelicals, she says, already have a seat at the table. "They're not some disenfranchised group who needed to have a symbolic invitation into the big tent. The reality is they've been in control of the government for eight years. The idea that we need to reach out to them is ridiculous."

McElrath Renna views the presence of Warren as a chance to glean early insight into Obama's Administration. What she sees is a disturbing predilection for political compromise and appeasement at the expense of campaign promises to LGBTs.

"How did that decision take place?" she asks. "I wonder about that. I think Obama met Rick Warren and found him likable, and that the choice was not as thoroughly vetted and challenged as it should have been."

What that choice reveals, she says, is that "Obama doesn't get it, and that's important information for us. If he doesn't understand what it means to be lesbian or gay, how can he be advocate on our behalf?"

Lazin, on the other hand, doesn't view the Warren situation as either a litmus test or a harbinger of doom for Obama/LGBT relations.

"When this controversy arose, he said 'It is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans,'" he notes. "I have no reason to disbelieve that, and anticipate based on the campaign promises he's made to our community that we'll see the passage of hate crimes legislation and at least a serious discussion of the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act."

'It gets framed so often that it's God vs. gays.'

Lazin worries that high profile reactions of the LGBT community over the speaker at a ceremony (as opposed to a policy initiative) may further alienate our community from others whose support we'll need when it comes to bipartisan legislative efforts.

"I understand why people might be disappointed, and I respect that," he says. "But if the criteria is for the president to be inclusive without sacrificing his values, then inviting someone like Warren sends an affirming message to a very significant percentage of our fellow Americans."

Confronting Evangelicals may backfire at a time when many in the religious community "are moving in our direction, if you take a look at the polling. There's a judgment call one needs to make in terms of who in that community you take on--because as you take on that person, you also take on the broader constituency that supports that person. In the grand scheme of things, is that something we should be doing? There are repercussions from all of that."

In a piece in Newsweek, McElrath Renna likened the choice of Warren to "an act of spiritual violence against lesbian and gay Americans" that has "created a world of hurt that could have been so easily avoided." As for the LGBT community's swift and passionate reaction, she told Edge that "The question of whether it's a battle we should have fought is really moot. We didn't choose it; the battle chose us. It was a reaction to a particular religious perspective that believes lesbian and gay people are sexually disordered, sinful people who choose to behave a certain way."

The Warren situation also brings into question the very presence of religion at a publicly funded government event. If there were true separation of church and state, some say, then shouldn't the swearing in ceremony of our president be void of religious content?

The invocation, Lazin says, "is a rather traditional point of the inauguration. I think in this case, president elect Obama has made very clear the separation of church and state; but that doesn't mean he wants to eliminate an invocation or benediction. Whether it could have been wiser to have a broader spectrum of denominations, that's an issue the inaugural committee should have given more thought to."

McElrath Renna believes the very presence of an exclusively Christian roster is worth questioning. As is, no Jews, Muslims, Buddhists will see their faiths represented at the ceremony. Although she believes "There are many evangelical representatives that do not have a similar view on gay people that Obama could have chosen," McElrath Renna asks "How is it inclusive is it to choose an Evangelical Christian representative?"

Establishing Obama's Religious Cred

The motivation for all-Christian content may have less to do with snubbing gays and more to do with a high profile attempt to establish Obama's religious credentials: "My guess would be there was all the propaganda about 'Is he Muslim?' So choosing these clearly Judeo-Christian spiritual representatives helped put that to rest."

Long after Warren has prayed and Obama has taken the oath of office, gay Americans and Christian conservatives will continue to be locked in a very public, and often very ugly, debate about gay rights. To that end, McElrath Renna sees this as an opportunity to change the nature of the debate.

"It gets framed so often that it's God vs. gays," she complains. "The reality is, it's God vs. God. Not all religions or religious leaders believe these things about lesbian and gay people - the vast majority of whom are people of faith."

The discussion, she insists, needs to become an inter-religious one - where vocal and articulate religious leaders who preach tolerance speak up on behalf of LGBTs: "We need to put forth religious and spiritual representatives who are fully supportive of lesbian and gay people. Those people exist and we've not used them to our advantage."

Damage has been done, she says, by "very well meaning lesbian or gay spokespeople who get up and talk from a secular perspective, while the other side talks about Leviticus or St. Paul." We need, she says, to have our own group of religious leaders who can "go out there and speak about religious perspectives that embrace lesbian or gay people. Then we can have the religion vs. religion debate and bring that into the American consciousness."

Scott Stiffler is a New York City based writer and comedian who has performed stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy. His show, "Sammy's at The Palace. . .at Don't Tell Mama"---a spoof of Liza Minnelli's 2008 NYC performance at The Palace Theatre, recently had a NYC run. He must eat twice his weight in fish every day, or he becomes radioactive.