Barack Obama is taking heat from his own political base over his having invited a well-known minister to speak at his inauguration next month — and, no, we’re not talking about civil rights icon Rev. Joseph Lowery, who will deliver the benediction.
Gay rights organizations and a number of liberal groups are irate over Obama’s choice of Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in California and author of best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” to deliver the invocation at his swearing-in. The reason: Warren’s outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion rights.
In a scathing letter to Obama, the Human Rights Campaign called the choice of Warren “a genuine blow” to gay Americans, who overwhelmingly supported Obama in his race against Republican John McCain.
Gays and lesbians are incensed because Warren was an ardent supporter of a ban on same-sex marriage overwhelmingly approved by California voters in the November election. Some fear the decision to give a conservative pastor such a prominent role in the inauguration may signal that Obama is backing away from his campaign pledges to advance gay rights.
Those are understandable concerns for gays and lesbians, and others who support their cause. But they should keep in mind that Obama has made clear he disagrees with Warren on a range of issues. After Obama was asked to speak at Warren’s church during the campaign, he told reporters he appreciated Warren’s invitation “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.”
Now, Obama has reached across ideological lines to give Warren an opportunity to speak — and pray — at the inauguration of a president who will lead a nation comprised not only of Democrats, but of people across the political and religious spectra.
Nor is Obama likely to abandon the promises he made during his campaign, including an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell” in military service. Better to approach such difficult issues with an open dialogue with evangelical leaders such as Warren than, as too often in the past, from opposite and polarized positions.
Finally, there is another explanation for Obama’s invitation. He has forged a genuine friendship with Warren, an affable soul who wears Hawaiian shirts, gives away 90 percent of his income and pleads with American Christians to do more to fight AIDS, arrest global warming and ease the plight of the world’s poor. Despite their disagreements on some issues, Obama and Warren can find common cause on others.
Obama says he recently became part of an ad hoc prayer circle of supportive ministers that includes Warren. That doesn’t mean Obama agrees with Warren on issues such as gay marriage or stem cell research. But it does mean he values his prayers, counsel and friendship — in the same way that presidents going back to Dwight Eisenhower valued their relationship with Rev. Billy Graham without agreeing with him on all political matters.
At a juncture in history when the American people face an extraordinary range of daunting issues, it’s heartening that the next president continues to bridge the gaps that too long have separated Americans and prevented them from seeing their common interests and urgent need for one another.
There is no better or more fitting place for bridging gaps than the inauguration of the next president — one who will need all of the support and prayers he can get.