The Problem With Rick Warren

Barack Obama’s team has released talking points in an attempt to quell the outrage that followed the announcement that Rick Warren would be delivering the invocation at his inauguration, defending the decision by saying that while Obama disagrees with Warren’s anti-gay views, the two “agree on many issues vital to the pursuit of social justice, including poverty relief and moving toward a sustainable planet” and, as such, the president-elect is committed to hosting “the most open, accessible, and inclusive Inauguration in American history.”

I think Sarah Posner gets right to the heart of what is wrong about this decision and this explanation:

Warren represents the absolute worst of the Democrats’ religious outreach, a right-winger masquerading as a do-gooder anointed as the arbiter of what it means to be faithful. Obama’s religious outreach was intended, supposedly, to make religious voters more comfortable with him and feel included in the Democratic Party. But that outreach now has come at the expense of other people’s comfort and inclusion, at an event meant to mark a turning point away from divisive politics.

Presumably, the purpose of Obama’s evangelical outreach was to try and make evangelicals comfortable with progressive Democratic positions by demonstrating that such views can be rooted in faith, not attempting to make evangelicals comfortable with the party by abandoning those positions for the sake of appeasing a key part of the electorate. 

Yet, by tapping Warren for this high-profile role in his inauguration, this is exactly what Obama is threatening to do.  After all, Warren has made it explicitly clear that, for all his work on poverty and HIV, it is the social issues like choice and marriage that are non-negotiable and define his worldview, proclaiming that it is “wishful thinking” on the part of Democrats if they think that evangelicals “are going to drop the other issues … they’re not leaving [their] pro-life” or anti-gay views behind them. 

We take Obama at his word when he says that he and Warren disagree on these and other issues and that he remains committed to equality for all.  But, as Steve Benen points out, by legitimizing Warren in this manner, it threatens to undermine Obama’s own efforts to promote that agenda:

When Obama advances a progressive agenda on social issues, as he’s certain to do, Warren will continue to speak out on the other side — only now, he’ll do so with the added authority that comes with being the president’s hand-chosen pastor for the inauguration’s invocation. Warren’s status will soar, and his criticism of Obama’s policies — or Democrats’ in general — will resonate that much louder.

Sharing the stage with a man who fundamentally disagrees with him on the most contentious issues of the day and who has vowed to fight any effort to ensure that women have a right to make their own choices regarding their reproductive health and gays and lesbians are accorded full and equal rights runs the risk of hamstringing Obama’s efforts to promote that agenda.

Some are arguing that the choice of Warren is little more than symbolism and that it shouldn’t be taken that seriously – but this sort of symbolism matters and, with this choice, Obama is signaling that those who hold militantly anti-gay, anti-choice views are going to be welcome in his White House.

 Ezra Klein sums the problem up nicely:  

The tolerance Obama is asking for, in other words, is not from Warren. It’s from the LGBT community, and women. He is asking them to be tolerant of Warren’s intolerance. It’s a cruel play, framed to marginalize the legitimate anger of those who Warren harms and discriminates against … Pro-choice women and gays were a significant part of Obama’s coalition, and they’re being forced to accept that the candidate they worked for will use the election they won to elevate a powerful religious leader who works often and publicly against their interests.