Posted by & filed under SOC 119 - Voices from the Classroom.

Rick Warren and Barack Obama appear to have a strained relationship. Apparently they first met a couple of years ago when Warren invited the then Senator to speak at his church in southern California. I guess it went well enough that Obama was invited back during the presidential campaign–but was then summarily shown the door by questions (from Warren) that he was not prepared to answer. Seems it was the singular moment in an eighteen month run where the masterful politico slipped and fell.

And now, suddenly, the jeans wearing minister is back on the national scene after being invited to deliver the opening prayer at the Presidential Inauguration. The problem is that this man with a modest wardrobe but an enormous influence embraces a number of views that many Obama supporters do not accept. And more than a few of the Warren critics think that choosing him for this role in the day’s ceremony is a slap in the face to thousands of LGBT people and their supporters who worked long and hard to elect this 44th President.

Here, for example, are some of the minister’s comments about same-sex marriage that were pulled from a December 2008 interview with Steven Waldman, editor-in-chief of Beliefnet:

Waldman: Do you support civil unions or domestic partnerships?

Warren: I don’t know if I’d use the term there. But I support full equal rights for everybody in America. I don’t believe we should have unequal rights depending on particular lifestyles, or whatever stuff like that. So I fully support equal rights.

Waldman: What about partnership benefits in terms of insurance or hospital visitation?

Warren: Not a problem with me…I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000 year old definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister together and call that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.

Waldman: Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?

Warren: Oh, I do. For 5,000 years marriage has been defined by every single ulture and every single religion…as a man and a woman.

My somewhat imperious nature emerges when it comes to religious belief systems, and so I feel the urge to say something about the “5,000 years” comment. Here goes.

Most people have a idyllic vision of marriage and families when they look to our past–which they characterize as guided by a noble moral order and cultural practices that were inspired by and acceptable to their creator. But in fact, families, sex, and marriage were rarely characterized by behavior that current moralists would endorse. So, for example, even as recent as the late 19th century, the age of consent (for marriage) for young girls was ten years of age in over half of the U.S. states and territories–and very often ten year olds were married off to men two and three times their age. This is just one small factoid from a past that most Christians would not want to recognize for their “Christian nation”–but it’s enough for me to raise an eyebrow in any moralistic reference to our “glorious past.”

And now to bringing people to the table, the issue at hand…

Given my distaste for anything that even remotely smacks of heterosexism or homophobia, I can understand the annoyance of Warren’s detractors. However, I have to give Obama credit for sticking to his word about bringing everyone to the table. The “table” he is referring to, after all, is (or should be) the one where important decisions are made and “everyone” includes the very people with whom he disagrees most vehemently. Anyone can pretend to involve the other side in their decision-making conversations by pretending to listen to their ideas–much like a savvy parent learns feign interest in the protestations of a teenager. But Obama’s critics are off the mark if they think that a man should be left off the guest list when his views about same-sex marriage are in line with 52 percent of his state’s (California) residents. Warren is the spokesperson for other side and his people, regardless of how distasteful their ideas to some, would take up over half the seats of that table if they all received invitations to come dialogue.

Somewhere in here is a lesson for most of us. How often do we share a table with the very people with whom we so stridently disagree–and then attempt to see the world from their eyes? How often do we see ourselves as they do — as crazy and out of touch, or as too intransigent in our strident opinions. More often than not, I would venture to guess, it’s considerably easier for most of us to simply lob derision grenades in the direction of our enemies.

Bush failed at being a uniter. Clinton wasn’t serious when he claimed that he would surely listen to all perspectives. Bush, Sr., Reagan, Carter, et. al. — they all claimed that they would work to build alliances but then fell short of this estimable goal. Obama, by contrast, a man who is turning out to be the consummate politician, might surprise us all; he might actually mean what he says.

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