Is Gay Outrage Over Rick Warren Justified?

Largely greeted with good will during the transition, President-elect Obama is getting a taste of hostility over his choice of the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver his inaugural invocation. A number of leading lesbian and gay voices, including Rep. Barney Frank, have criticized the selection of the megapastor, who has spoken out against same-sex marriage. Warren, in a statement Thursday, thanked Obama "for his courage to willingly take enormous heat from his base by inviting someone like me, with whom he doesn't agree on every issue, to offer the invocation. Hopefully individuals passionately expressing opinions from the left and the right will recognize that both of us have shown a commitment to model civility in America." In that vein, NEWSWEEK asked two members of the gay community to debate the Warren controversy. Chris Crain is a blogger and journalist who has written about Warren on his blog. Leah McElrath Renna is a psychotherapist and managing partner of Renna Communications who has covered the topic on The Huffington Post. Excerpts:

Chris Crain: Leah, you and others are criticizing the selection of Rick Warren as a betrayal of Barack Obama's promise to unify the country, but the way you define "unity" is really very exclusionary. The inaugural committee has promised "an inclusive and accessible inauguration that ... unites the nation around our shared values and ideals." You argue Warren should be disqualified under that standard because his gay-marriage opposition is a "value and ideal" you don't share. But Obama's point was to unify us around areas of agreement, and here you are focused on disagreement, so where's the betrayal? For "unifying the nation" to mean anything, there must be "inclusion" for conservatives, including the many millions like Warren who oppose gay marriage. Excluding those with whom we disagree is the antithesis of unifying.

Even if you suspect the whole "unity" thing is really just about politics, the selection of Warren still makes good sense, including for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Americans. It is a stroke of political brilliance to recruit a conservative megapastor in support of a president-elect who is arguably the most pro-gay, pro-choice and progressive in our history. That's the kind of political dividend you get from focusing on common ground—like Warren's support for the fight against global warming and AIDS.

Leah McElrath Renna: Chris, the important point that is being missed by you and others is the context of Warren's participation in the inauguration. The person selected to deliver the invocation has the honor of serving as the spiritual representative for the entire nation. The person is charged with the responsibility of calling upon God for God's assistance on allof our behalf, and the reality is that Warren does not recognize lesbian and gay people as being spiritually whole or as having been created by God exactly how we are.

If Rick Warren were a pastor of the Christian fundamentalist type who espoused a belief that all Muslims or Jewish people were unbelievers, infidels or "failures as human beings" (as the late Jerry Falwell is reported to have described all people who did not identify as "born-again Christians"), then we would not even be having this discussion.

Rick Warren's beliefs about LGBT people are substantially equivalent to those views. Based on his own statements, Warren does not believe that lesbian and gay people exist. He views us as people who "think they are smarter than God" and who choose "to disobey God's sexual instructions." In other words, he sees us as behaviorally disordered sinners. He has even gone beyond that to equate our marital relationships with the abusive perversions of incest and pedophilia.

What impact do you think this choice will have on the millions of LGBT people of faith in this country to see this man being put forth as a spiritual representative for the nation as a whole? What impact do you imagine this will have on LGBT people of faith who have suffered harm by being forced into so-called "ex-gay ministries"—programs for which Warren has voiced his support?

The presidential inauguration is—by definition—a symbolic event. That's its entire purpose. What it is not is a policy roundtable. I am a pragmatist by nature and—unlike some of Obama's supporters—do not expect him not to be a politician. But the choice of Rick Warren amounts to an act of spiritual violence against lesbian and gay Americans, and it has created a world of hurt that could have been so easily avoided. With an entire world of truly inclusive spiritual leaders eager to participate in this inauguration, there is simply no valid reason that President-elect Obama couldn't have chosen someone to perform the invocation who actually recognizes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people as whole and perfect children of God exactly how they are.

Chris Crain: I don't doubt the sincerity of the pain you describe feeling because of Warren's selection, Leah, but I do see it as a sad example of what can happen when we focus on what divides us. We are so ready to find offense that we transform Warren's role at the inauguration, which most folks would characterize as "the guy they picked to say a prayer," into somehow being "the spiritual representative of the nation." Obama picked black civil rights hero Joseph Lowery, a gay marriage advocate, to give the benediction. Why is Warren's inauguration role more meaningful than Lowery's?

By highlighting writ large our disagreement with Warren on marriage, you also manage to transform a difference over theology and policy into "an act of spiritual violence" against us ... by Barack Obama! Are we really that sensitive? Should we be? The selection of any religious representative could by virtue of his or her creed or past sermons give rise to a multitude of perceived insults. I would wager that Pastor Warren does, in fact, view Muslims—not to mention agnostics and atheists—as unbelievers destined for hell. He may even feel likewise about Jews. Should these groups be joining you in crying "spiritual violence"? Had Obama picked a pro-choice minister to give the invocation, the pro-lifers could claim "an act of spiritual violence" against millions of "murdered" fetuses. That's how quickly things go nuclear when we focus on division, and not on common ground.

Take Warren's views on gay marriage. You and many other gay folk find deep offense in how Warren supposedly "equated our marital relationships with the abusive perversions of incest and pedophilia." What he actually said, in fact, was that he had "no problem" with marriage or civil unions for gay couples, but did oppose "the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage" because we'd be forced to recognize an incestuous marriage or polygamy as well. You and I would agree, Leah, that he is flat wrong on the history of marriage. NEWSWEEK's wonderful cover story on gay marriage pointed out that marriage included polygamy for a lot more of those 5,000 years than it excluded it. We would also agree that Warren is simply silly to assume the gay marriage door somehow opens Pandora's marriage box. But he was not "equating" gay marriage with incest and polygamy. He was making a classic "slippery slope" argument: If you allow "x," which we have "no problem" with, you will be also be allowing "y" and "z," which we all agree are "abusive perversions," to use your words, Leah. The whole point behind the parade of horribles in a slippery slope argument is that "y" and "z" (polygamy and incest) are not the same, but much worse, than "x" (gay marriage and civil unions).

Now look at what happens if we focus on common ground instead. For one thing, we would see that Warren sees gay relationships very differently than polygamy and incest because he has no problem with some domestic partnership benefits and he leaves the door open for other forms of legal recognition for same-sex couples—something he obviously would not support for polygamists and the like. How ironic and unfortunate, then, that instead of reaching out to an enormously influential megapastor who is open to legal recognition of our relationships, we are publicly pillorying him as a "homophobe."

Leah McElrath Renna: Assuming you are including lesbian and gay people of faith and our allies within "most folks," I beg to differ with you that they would see the person delivering the invocation as simply "the guy who said a prayer." Yes, that might be the perspective of a secular person, but it is not that of a person of faith. The inauguration exists as a symbolic event by definition—a ritual. Whether you see it as a stretch or not, the person charged with invoking God's presence at the beginning of the ceremony is serving as the spiritual representative of our nation as a whole. That's just a fact.

I am not highlighting our disagreement with Warren on same-sex marriage rights. I am highlighting Warren's denial of our sexual orientation as an authentic and god-given aspect of our humanity.

In terms of your interpretation of Warren's comments about civil unions and domestic partnerships, you are mistakenly reading into them perhaps what you want to hear. These are Warren's own words when responding to a question about whether or not he supports unions and partnerships for same-sex couples: "But a civil union is not a civil right. Nowhere in the constitution can you find the 'right' to claim that any loving relationship identical to marriage. It's just not there." Now, the good news is that Warren appears to recognize that civil unions and domestic partnerships are civil efforts to legally recognize relationships "identical to marriage." But the bad news is that, contrary to your interpretation, he does not support them. With all due respect, I am not going to get into the issue of his equating our marital relationships with sexually abusive ones again. Warren's words are clear, and he has said them on a number of different occasions and in different forums.

In Warren's defense, he is an evangelical Christian who has actively reached out to both Muslims and Jewish people and recognized them as worshiping the same God as Christians. He differs in this sense from many fundamentalist Christian leaders. In fact, Warren draws a distinction between evangelical and fundamentalist Christians and claims not to be a fundamentalist. The only area of belief in which he uses the fundamentalist tool of Biblical literalism is to justify and defend his perspective on lesbians and gay people.

Chris Crain: Leah, we are only deferring that happy day when we win our equality if we are unwilling to find common ground and respectfully engage those with whom we disagree—especially those like Rick Warren who are so influential with so many. We can't get away with "refusing to get into" whether Warren in fact "equated" our relationships to abusive ones. The argument isn't beneath you, Leah, it's in front of you. The whole reason we are having to fight for marriage equality is that most Americans—including most African Americans—agree with Warren about gay marriage and do not view our struggle as analogous to the black civil rights movement.

On that point, your unwillingness to look for common ground again leads you to mischaracterize Warren's views. He did not say he opposed civil unions; he said the Constitution does not guarantee them to us as a civil right. I'm guessing you would actually agree with him on that, and argue the Constitution actually guarantees us full marriage equality. Regardless, gay activists typically argue for civil unions in legislatures, not courtrooms, so Warren's position isn't the end of the discussion. We shouldn't be looking for end points in the discussion; we should be looking for opportunities. Warren very clearly voiced support for many forms of recognition for same-sex couples. Why not reach out to him on that basis, rather than try to exclude him from good society as some sort of extremist?

You and I would agree, I think, that our fight for civil rights is analogous in many ways to the struggle of African Americans. But you would also have to agree that the country is much, much farther along on black civil rights than on gay civil rights. The election of Barack Obama proves that. So instead of trying to leap ahead five or 10 or 15 years and try to exclude our opponents as bigots outside the mainstream, we ought to be looking for common ground, and engaging them respectfully where we disagree—all with the confidence that the public will see we have the stronger position.

Leah McElrath Renna: I need to return to my central point that is not about marriage equality for same-sex couples or any other policy-related issue. The reality is that Rick Warren does not believe that lesbian and gay people exist. In his worldview and spiritual perspective, LGBT individuals are people who choose to engage in sinful, sexually disordered behavior. This worldview is justified by him and others by a narrow, ahistorical and literal interpretation of a very small number of Biblical passages. It is not shared by all religions, nor by all people or denominations within the Christian faith.

As long as LGBT people and our allies continue to allow others to define our very existence as a so-called "social issue,'' we will not succeed in creating a world that is safe for ourselves, our loved ones and our families.