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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Rick Warren and the Prop 8 Revolt

I think it’s safe to say that no decision by Barack Obama since his vote for FISA legislation much earlier this year has aroused as much authentic anger among progressives as his invitation to evangelical superstar Rick Warren to provide the invocation at his inauguration next month.
Some of the backlash over Warren reflects broad-based concerns that Obama’s style of religious outreach has, well, overreached by embracing a religious leader who considers homosexuality a sin, evolution a hoax, legalized abortion a holocaust, and “evildoers” like the elected president of Iran a target for a righteous assassination. Sarah Posner has articulated these concerns in a typically thorough piece at The Nation:

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.

Damon Linker, known mainly for his aggressive and informed criticism of the Religious Right, offers publicly what I’ve privately heard a fair number of Democrats say in defense or dismissal of the Warren choice:

Obama’s a politician, and the Warren pick is just the latest sign that he’s an exceedingly shrewd one (as Andrew concedes). Warren is beloved by mainstream evangelicals, who have helped him to sell millions of books extolling a fairly anodyne form of American Protestantism. (Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell he is not.) It is in Obama’s interest (and the Democrats’) to peel as many moderate evangelicals away from the GOP as he can. Giving Warren such a prominent (but purely symbolic) place in the inauguration is a politically cost-free way of furthering this partisan agenda.

As Linker’s post indicates, part of the disagreement over this issue reflects deeper disagreements on several points. What is the symbolic value, positive or negative, of Warren’s role in the inauguration? What is the source and significance of Warren’s cult-like celebrity? Is he, as Posner calls him, a “culture warrior wolf” in “sheep’s clothing,” or, as Linker suggests, a purveyor of Oprah-style lifestyle advice that can be separated from his deeper theological and political positions? And who is legitimizing whom here? Is Warren blessing Obama’s progressive agenda, or is Obama blessing Warren’s reactionary views?
All these are legitimate arguments to have, this day or any day, but there’s not much question that what makes this dispute red-hot at present is Warren’s visible role, as a California-based megapreacher, in support of California’s Proposition 8 outlawing gay marriage.
It is abundantly clear that LGBT activists view the passage of Prop 8 as representing the dark underside of what is generally being treated by progressives as a Jubilee event on November 4. That it happened in a state that Barack Obama carried by a huge margin is especially troubling, and is understandably being interpreted as a sign that LGBT folk are being excluded from the Obama coalition. No one should be surprised that Obama’s decision to give an avid Prop 8 supporter a central role in his inauguration–offering, in fact, the blessings of Almighty God to the new presidency–would feel like salt poured into fresh wounds.
But the backlash to the Warren designation illustrates something else about Prop 8 that hasn’t gotten much attention in progressive circles: a real sea-change in LGBT acceptance of half-loaf Democratic commitments to equality. Put aside, if you can, the motives and underlying agenda of the most important Prop 8 proponents, and the lies they told to push the initiative over the line to victory. The actual language of Prop 8–“no” to gay marriage, along with “yes” or at least “maybe” to everything short of that–is highly congruent with the default-drive position of many, and probably a majority, of Democratic pols in the very recent past. The Democratic nominee for president in 2004 took this position. So, too, did the 2008 candidate for president often thought of as most “progressive,” John Edwards. And it’s within shouting distance of Obama’s own position, even though he did make clear his own opposition to the initiative. And it’s hard to find a prominent Democratic elected official in culturally conservative parts of the country who hasn’t followed the no-to-gay-marriage, yes-to-domestic-partnerships template, though it’s not so hard to find some who haven’t even gone that far in a progressive direction.
Why is that postion now being deemed so insultingly unacceptable in progressive company? I’d say it’s mainly because Prop 8 overturned established marriage rights that upwards of 20,000 couples joyfully took advantage of during the five-month regime of legalized gay marriage in California. Whereas in previous gay marriage struggles Democrats might be grudgingly forgiven for failing to have the political courage to blaze new trails, Prop 8 represents a (literally) reactionary step back, and in a state that is so often described as a cultural and political trend-shaper. Even as Prop 8 has galvanized the argument that gay marriage should be regarded as a fundamental right indicative of basic equality, not as a negotiable sign of “progress” or “tolerance,” Prop 8 has almost certainly changed, probably forever, the terms on which LGBT folk will participate in the progressive coalition and the Democratic Party, despite the obvious lack of political alternatives.
I think it’s actually a testament to progressive faith in Team Obama’s political acumen that it’s generally assumed he invited this controversy deliberately by paying Rick Warren the honor of a role in his inauguration. But it’s a conflict that will persist after the echoes of Warren’s invocation have long died.

5 comments on “Rick Warren and the Prop 8 Revolt

  1. ducdebrabant on

    Thank you. Of course you are quite right that reproductive rights could be taken away by simple majority vote, but it would have to be a simple majority of the Supreme Court at this point, not an initiative in a particular state. The latter is what I was thinking of, but the principle is obviously similar.
    I was watching “Hardball” the other day and was so saddened and disgusted. Mike Barnickle who was filling in for Chris Matthews brought up Rick Warren, and asked his guests if the controversy was good or bad for Obama
    Both of them (a black female “political consultant” for MSNBC and a white guy from New York magazine) eagerly said it was great for Obama. The male guest said he’d been waiting for Obama’s “Sister Souljah” moment and this was it (I suspected as much myself — that it was a calculated insult to Obama’s gay supporters for the benefit of those who hate them) and that it would play well throughout the country.
    The host then asked: “Outside of the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Malibu, and San Francisco, this isn’t even a story, is it?” And they all agreed.
    Who cares about the queers, right? They all live in only three neighborhoods in America anyway. But these talking heads don’t seem to realize that, not only are gays and lesbians far more dispersed than they imagine, their heterosexual sympathizers are many. There was a large rally in Chicago, of all places, against the Prop 8 results, and one in Salt Lake City. There were demonstrations all over the place, in fact. When a referendum in one state ignites protests all over the country, it’s really something.
    And all over the internet I’ve read sad or angry protests of Obama’s Warren invitation by sympathetic heterosexuals. Not all of them, by any means, brought up the Warren stance on abortion. They were angry about his gutter characterizations of gay people, and the vulgarity of having such a man take on a task of such national dignity.
    I don’t know how Obama, or anybody else, dares expect gay men and lesbians to feel this is their country, but they do. When they’re not hurting us or insulting us, they’re demanding our sacrifices. Being Americans means to them that they have a right to expect something from their government. For us, they think it should mean expecting nothing from it. Not even respect.
    The Obama folks sure didn’t look for Sister Souljah moments during the election when they asked us for a check every single week. They waited till now, just to make sure we know that the victory wasn’t ours and the Inauguration isn’t an occasion for us to feel part of our nation. And the press thinks it’s nifty.
    We’re Americans too, but to the heterosexual majority that just means we must give and shut up. We helped make this man President (which is more than Rick Warren or his evangelicals did). Now we must go to the back of the bus, again. Until again he wants our money or our shoe leather.

  2. MCinDC on

    Excellent post, Ed. But I want to add an important point, one that is getting overlooked but I think is fairly important.
    Rick Warren PROHIBITS GLBT people from becoming members of his church. This is not a “policy position.” This is an exclusionary practice based on his belief that we are deviant sinners simply because of who we are. Here is the excerpt from the website, which, by the way, was scrubbed of any reference to gay people this week (ashamed much?):
    “Because membership in a church is an outgrowth of accepting the Lordship and leadership of Jesus in one’s life, someone unwilling to repent of their homosexual lifestyle would not be accepted at a member at Saddleback Church.”
    While Obama tries to make this about policy differences, it should be extremely concerning to anyone who cares about ANY form of discrimination that Obama fails to see how deep this goes. For him to say he is a “fierce defender” of gay rights is fairly ridiculous at this point. You don’t get to do both, Mr. President-elect. You don’t get to elevate and honor a bigoted discriminator AND say you support that same community. You have made your choice. You have chosen evangelicals — who are protected by law against discrimination — over GLBT people, who are not. It may be “shrewd” politics but that doesn’t make it any less shameful.
    Yes, Rev. Warren speaks in a friendly manner, he is one of the “nice” evangelicals, as opposed to the scary, mean ones of old– a la Jerry Falwell. But I think that makes him more dangerous, not less.

  3. georip on

    It can be argued that Obama has purposefully opened this subject up to broad public discussion in a manner which can only serve to benefit the just concerns of the gay community if they carry their part of the discussion persuasively. Virulence is not particularly persuasive.
    Ultimately, the gay community ought to be grateful to Obama for putting a discussion of their issues front and center. In every democratic nation citizens should be discussing all sorts of issues all the time, with passionate intelligence and tollerance, and yes, patience.
    America needs a full discussion of this issue. Issues of sex and love have always made puritans squeamish. Talk to them with patience and concern of an educator. Eventually the gay community should begin to win ballot initiatives. But only if they are convincing, not if they are combative.
    And watch for Jared Polis, the new gay rep. from Boulder, Colorado. He’ll be stirring the pot I have no doubt.

  4. Ciccina on

    Well put, Duc, with one exception. You write, “This need never terrify heterosexuals. It will never happen to them.”
    Wrong! In the Griswold and Roe decisions the Supreme Court recognized a woman’s fundamental right to be let alone to make her own decisions with regard to her fertility. The state could only intervene if it could demonstrate that there was a significant public interest in doing so.
    People like Rick Warren have been trying to take that control back from women ever since, and with the Supreme Court’s most recent abortion-related decision, they basically did just that.
    Warren thinks gay people are like animals; Bush tried to put a veterinarian in charge of the FDA’s Office of Women’s Health. We have a lot in common, my friend. We’re all “bitter old white women” now.
    That said, I’ll take issue with Mr. Kilgore’s closing words: “I think it’s actually a testament to progressive faith in Team Obama’s political acumen that it’s generally assumed he invited this controversy deliberately by paying Rick Warren the honor of a role in his inauguration.”
    That is not faith; it is denial. If one is progressive, and one believes Obama deliberately invited this controversy (alienating a core Democratic constituency and pissing on a basic civil right), you are angry, very angry, at Obama, and your “faith” in him has been betrayed.
    Obama and Warren quite blatantly got in bed with each other before the Saddleback forum. Warren gave Obama the opportunity to answer softball questions, and he didn’t marshall his troops against Obama. Obama stayed silent on Prop 8 and is showcasing Warren at the Inauguration. The two men have a mutually beneficial relationship. This is basic Politics 101.
    What the geniuses at Team O have failed to realize is that they are no longer running for election. No matter what overtures they make to the religious right, those people will not get behind him on legislative initiatives. They will do what they always do – find some narrow “religious” reason to object to a Democratic package, and then get in line with the Republicans. Meanwhile, the Democratic base, a much more important constituency when it comes to passing legislation, is left angry and suspicious.
    That’s not “political acumen.” It’s the opposite.
    Another mistake team O has made is clear from their talking points – they think only GLBTIQ people are angry about Warren. This is not true. There are lots of straight people who are angry. Even straight people who don’t care about marriage equality understand that it is wrong to betray your supporters.
    This is exactly the kind of nonsense we could have avoided if we had nominated a candidate who has experience dealing with the religious right – Hillary Clinton.

  5. ducdebrabant on

    That’s a trenchant analysis, and I appreciate it. The sea change you describe isn’t complete, as it happens. As a gay man, I am still ready (for the time being) to accept civil unions — without the “marriage” name but with all equivalent rights — in other states.
    California is a special case. As you point out, what just happened in California is that fundamental rights were first granted by a court’s interpretation of the state constitution and then snatched away by a simple majority in a referendum. This need never terrify heterosexuals. It will never happen to them. Why should they understand, or give a damn? Naturally, most don’t.
    But those of us who are both gay and educated have tried to think of a precedent, and personally, I have to go back to the days of Fugitive Slave Laws, when a slave who set foot in Ohio (and became legally free under state law) could either be kidnapped and brought back to his southern master or brought back by federal officers, and instantly be a slave again.
    It drives black homophobes crazy when our struggle is compared in any way to the struggle for black civil rights, or when anti-gay laws are compared to Jim Crow laws, but that’s just tough. The facts are the facts, and the likenesses scream.
    In the aftermath of the victory of Proposition 8, while supporters like Rick Warren were smugly savoring their victory, gay people and heterosexuals of good will organized a stunningly swift and monstrously large reaction almost entirely using the internet. Protests occurred all over the country. They took place in Salt Lake City protesting the LDS’s disproportionate funding of a rights grab in a neighboring state. They took place, too, outside Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church.
    Bad enough that Obama soft-pedaled his supposed opposition to Prop 8. Bad enough that he never protested the use of his own voice in Prop 8 ads. We were willing to forgive that. We had moved on and were living in the present, denouncing the Rick Warrens and ready to try again.
    Then what does the President-Elect do? He rewards Rick Warren for his brutal involvement in invalidating legal marriages in California, in snatching a fundamental right from citizens for the first time since Dred Scott, with undoubtedly the most high-profile and symbolically important (and it’s meant to be symbolically important) assignment any American religious leader will receive in the entire year of 2009.
    Who among OUR constituency (the one that actually helped fund Obama’s victory and voted for him) will stand with Obama on the speaker’s platform and take up a specific role? The Obama transition think we will be mollified for this deeply hurtful and politically calculating insult by an invitation to a San Francisco gay marching band to participate in the inaugural parade.
    That (letting the minority do the entertaining, but have none of the influence) will be recognized by some African-Americans as political minstrelsy. It’s nice that we’re allowed in the parade (we weren’t at the Clinton inaugurations), but life isn’t just a cabaret, old chum.
    All over the internet, Obama’s straight defenders are saying, what’s the big deal that Warren is “anti-Gay Marriage”? He isn’t. He’s anti-gay. He thinks gay people are animals, the moral equivalents of child molesters. He says so specifically. He likens gay relationships to incest.
    He is anti civil unions. He is anti domestic partnerships. He is presumably pro sodomy laws. Straight Democrats must stop prettifying him by equating his position to Obama’s own. They must stop whitewashing him, Stop minimizing our concerns just because they don’t share them.
    I’ve been accused directly of “torpedoing the Obama administration” for denouncing this. If anybody torpedoes the Obama administration, it will be people tugging a change message back into business as usual, which in this instance is bigotry. In fact, it is we who have been torpedoed by a carefully-calculated Sister Souljah moment, and not for the first time.
    Obama is not (as his own words maintain) a “fierce advocate” of equality for gay people. He is a half-hearted and occasional one. He has advocated equality (or contends he has; he doesn’t support marriage equality) in a perfunctory fashion, and from time to time does something equal and opposite to dramatize just how in the tank for gay equality he absolutely is not.
    Anybody who thought the “mistake” of inviting anti-gay “ex-gay” preacher Donnie McClurkin to entertain at an Obama rally in North Carolina wouldn’t be repeated — or that it was a mistake at all — now knows better.
    Like his inaugural plans, it was rather a calculated public insult to reassure homophobes that, despite his occasional statements of support (in principle) for equality, Obama doesn’t really care for gay people very much. It shows that Warren’s viciousness towards gays and lesbians, unlike racism and anti-Semitism, is no bar to his being given the most symbolically important religious role in the Inauguration. Warren is Obama’s closest buddy in the right wing evangelical movement. Who’s his closest gay buddy? I don’t know either.
    Some may find homophobia more respectable than racism and anti-Semitism, but not everybody does. Inviting Rick Warren to give the invocation is no better than inviting a notorious racist or anti-Semite. It’s a disgrace. Gay men and women don’t have to excuse it or overlook it.
    Obama says he owes Warren this high profile honor because Warren entertained him at Saddleback, but if Warren were as openly anti-Semitic or racist as he is openly contemptuous of gay people, I wonder if Obama would have even accepted an invitation from Warren, let alone tendered him one.
    Inclusivity ends someplace. We don’t include Klansmen or other white supremacists. We wouldn’t invite a Jew-hating Farrakhan to deliver an invocation. I think Obama really would be a “fierce opponent” of something like that. Gays and lesbians are the last minority in America to see those who advocate their utter subjection under the law elevated to the highest status in the land.
    It isn’t “inclusive” to pick Warren, it’s exclusionary. The Warrens have always been in the club. This is a signal to gays that they’re not at the table, and a signal to right wingers that Obama isn’t serious about seating them there.
    The day the very idea of asking an anti-Semite or a racist to deliver the invocation is exactly as unacceptable as the idea of letting a rabid homophobe do so, that will be the day gays and lesbians are included. And till that day, this is not an inclusive administration, and its politics still belong to the past.


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