Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why I Bowed My Head with Rick Warren on Tuesday

Like millions of other Americans, my eyes were glued to a television screen yesterday around 11:40 a.m. Eastern Time. A large crowd of employees at the law firm where I work gathered in the lunchroom to watch Barack Hussein Obama be inaugurated 44th president of the United States of America.

It was a bit odd then, in this secular work setting, to experience prayer, even through the circumscribed medium of television. Having grown up Mormon in "the mission field," and having participated my whole life in General Conference via radio and television, I am accustomed to praying with someone in this way. Though not with co-workers.

For just a moment, as the announcer presented Rick Warren, I wondered how I would participate in this prayer, not just because of the awkwardness of this setting, but because of the mixed emotions raised by the "controversy" surrounding a key Prop 8 supporter being invited to ask God's blessings on the new president. The hesitation lasted only a moment. I knew that I had to pray with this man. I realized that I wanted to pray with him. Not because I think he was right about Prop 8, but precisely because I think he was wrong about it.

Perhaps Obama's choice of Rick Warren was a mis-step. Perhaps Obama didn't realize what he was doing when he asked Rick Warren to give the opening prayer at his inauguration. But given what I know about Obama, about the care and deliberation he gives to everything he does, from the words he gives at a campaign speech, to the manner of choosing a cabinet minister, I know he never acts impulsively. There are always compelling reasons -- whether you agree with them or not -- for what he does.

And Obama has made a conscious effort to send Americans a clear message since the night the votes were first counted and everybody knew he was going to be the next president. He deliberately spoke of his admiration for Doris Kearn Goodwin's book, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. He deliberately made cabinet choices of people with diverse and even conflicting views and personalities. The message was: We need to work together as a people, across our differences.

Some people try to build consensus by appealing to "moderates." They think that by excluding those at the polar edges of a debate that they will somehow be able to appeal to everybody. But I believe this approach to consensus-building is fundamentally flawed, and Obama's approach is right on. Instead of convening a coalition of moderates, the way to build true consensus is to bring everybody in, from all ends of the debate. Have a real conversation across real difference, not some mamby pamby, lukewarm, "moderate" love fest.

Obama could have picked somebody to say the opening prayer at his inauguration who would have offended no one. He had probably thousands of choices in that department. He deliberately did not.

Leaders of the gay community need to stop acting as if they have somehow been snubbed by Obama, as if we've somehow "lost" because Rick Warren said a prayer on the steps of the Capitol. We need to stop whining about how the Right Reverend Eugene Robinson was shunted off to some sideshow event where the sound didn't even work properly and that *gasp* wasn't even aired by HBO! We need to stop taking offense at every perceived symbolic slight, because every time we do that we are acting like second class citizens. We need to step to the plate. We need to be grown-ups now and try to understand exactly what Obama is trying to do, and be a part of the team, not whine and bemoan our supposed exclusion. Because I believe he truly wants us to be a part of the team and wants an America where we are fully enfranchised just like everybody else. And I truly believe that if we do our part, we need have no fear. Our time will come. We will achieve the equality we rightly hunger for.

Even if Obama has issues with the gay community, we need to understand that America is a land guided by the light of the principle of equality, where the forces of injustice and inequality have only gradually been driven back. There was no more tangible, visible reminder of that than the celebration of the inauguration of America's first black president in a nation where blacks still live in a state of economic and social inequality. The election of Obama was a huge step forward, literally and symbolically. But mostly symbolically. We still have a long way to go.

We have a lot of problems to face as a nation. Not just inequality, but war and poverty, illiteracy and illness, not to mention an economy that's currently in a state of cardiac arrest. The really tough stuff -- the tough decisions and the tough political wrangling -- has not even begun yet. And we're going to get all into a tizzy now, before the president's hands are even dirty with the task of actually solving some of these problems?

When I bowed my head and closed my eyes in prayer Tuesday morning, I realized I had a choice. I could hold back. In my heart and in my mind, I could leave this event and go join Eugene Robinson over at the sideshow and sulk with everybody else in my "tribe." I could refuse to take a moment to turn my spirit to God with a man I disagree with.

Or I could do something else. I could pray with Rick Warren and for Rick Warren. Because I need God's help and he needs God's help, and so does the rest of this pain-stricken, uncertain nation.

May God make a true nation of us. That's my prayer.


Bill McA said...

Beautifully said, John.

Anonymous said...

I didn't want to turn my back. At the Riverview, maybe 5-10% of the people there turned their backs. I sat and watched the screen and waited to cringe. The biggest cringe factor I thought was the way he said Malia and Sasha's names.

Onward we go. I've read some very unpleasant things about Warren appointing an AIDS czar in Africa who is pro-abstinence and anti-condoms!! He's got a way to go in his methods, even if his intentions are sometimes good.

Betty T

J G-W said...

Here's a blog post discussing "Rick Warren's Africa Problem."

At our law-firm viewing, at one point in the prayer when Pastor Warren said something to the effect of "God, we know you love all people," a woman in our group of viewers interjected "except gays!" Nobody turned away from the T.V.

I'm not thrilled about Warren's behavior in relation to Prop 8; nor do his statements comparing homosexuality to pedophilia, incest and bestiality endear him to me or incline me to see him as a reasonable person. And what I've read about the impact of his interventions in in Africa AIDS policy I find deeply worrisome.

Nevertheless, I applaud Obama's desire to bring him to the table.

And, for what it's worth, conservative/fundamentalist Christian blogs appear to be lambasting Warren for what they view as his compromise with the enemy, specifically his failure to criticize Obama's pro-choice views either before, during or after the inauguration ceremony.