You Just Screwed Up, Buddy: Giving Comfort to Those Who Prey on Hate
have never believed that Barack Obama was going to stand up one day on national television and say “I support gay marriage for anyone who wants it.”
I have never fooled myself that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was ever going to climb to the top of his list of priorities.
I knew, from the start of his campaign almost two years ago, that he was a classic “liberal” when it came to queer rights: Some of his best friends are. He’s against anti-gay violence and job discrimination against LGBT people (most of it—just not in the military). He’ll appoint qualified lesbians and gay men to positions in his government.
But he doesn’t really, truly believe we’re the same as “everybody else.” He doesn’t really, truly believe we should be entitled, in every single conceivable way, to the same legal and social status as people who happen to be heterosexual. And he doesn’t really, truly believe that homophobia falls into precisely the same category as racism, sexism, or anti-Semitism.
For homophobia, he’s willing to make some exceptions. For the fundamentalist Christian right, he’s willing to concede that a religious motivation justifies the preaching of anti-gay bigotry and, evidently, that churches have a legitimate role to play in formulating public and civil-rights policy in a secular society.
That’s exactly what happened in California last November: Religious groups (the Mormon church chief among them) succeeded in repealing the right of marriage for same-sex partners, which the California Supreme Court had previously declared constitutional, for motivations that were entirely religious (or, as they like to put it, “moral”).
Rick Warren was right there with them.
Obama has made it clear that, in his approach to governing the United States, he wants to move beyond “small politics”; he wants to “reach across the aisle” and “expand the debate.” How could we not agree?
But every single political position, personal belief, or religious conviction does not deserve a place at the table. Not every opinion is legitimate or correct simply because someone holds it, and democracy doesn’t mean reducing all moral positions to the least common denominator.
I don’t expect fundamentalist preachers to stop inveighing against homosexuality anymore than I expect McDonald’s to stop selling high-fat hamburgers: It’s what they do.
What I do expect is that the (future) President of the United States, who campaigned on a platform of principles and core values, will demonstrate that he has some.
I don’t think Rick Warren deserves to be shot on sight or put in a concentration camp or be clapped into jail—which is quite a bit more Christian than what a lot of the people in Warren’s Rolodex would be willing to concede to me. Over the years, big-name members of the fundamentalist religious right have publicly and repeatedly called for LGBT people to be arrested, imprisoned, murdered, branded, stoned, fired from their jobs, physically segregated … you get the picture. These are Rick Warren’s friends and colleagues.
And Obama thinks inviting a man like that to pray at his inauguration is an example of building bridges.
He’s wrong. If Jeremiah Wright doesn’t merit a place on the podium on January 20th—if his ideas were “divisive and destructive” and “[gave] comfort to those who prey on hate”; if Wright “contradict[ed] everything that [Obama was] about”—then why isn’t the same true of Rick Warren? Those quotes, by the way, all come from Obama’s statements about Wright last April 29th.
And that is what makes the choice of Rick Warren so appalling. Obama didn’t need to go out on a limb or expend political capital or take a position for gay marriage or gay rights that would have stirred up national controversy.
All he had to do was refuse to sacrifice gay people in the name of pandering to the religious right. All he had to do was refuse to give comfort to those who prey on hate. All he had to do, if he wanted to build bridges, was not bury us under them.
All he had to do was invite someone other than Rick Warren. Avoiding this offense, in other words, would have cost Obama nothing. But we weren’t important enough not to insult.
Writers like Lee Stranahan (in the Huffington Post) and numerous bloggers, meanwhile, defend Warren by saying that he actually represents the “mainstream.” “Embrace what you have in common with Rick Warren,” Stranahan exhorts; “a majority of Americans agree with Warren about same sex marriage and many more states have made marriage equality unconstitutional than have ratified it.”
We’re kidding here, right? Lee Stranahan really does know the difference between democracy and the tyranny of the many, doesn’t he? He, and those who hold similar views, are not really arguing that full citizenship and legal parity for queer people should be decided by majority vote. Or is he?
One hundred and fifty years ago, the “mainstream” view was that slavery was a fine old institution and that the national government should stay out of it. Eighty years ago, the “mainstream” was convinced that women had no business voting. Sixty-six years ago, the “mainstream” held that Japanese-Americans were traitors and that imprisoning them in concentration camps was legitimate and justified. Forty years ago the “mainstream” considered mixed-race marriages immoral and supported laws prohibiting them. Six years ago, the “mainstream” was convinced that Iraq was hiding caches of weapons of mass destruction and was an immediate threat to the safety of the United States.
The mainstream is often wrong. Obama ought to know that better than anybody else: Up until a few months ago, the “mainstream” believed he could never be elected president.
And here’s a final irony. Earlier this month, Obama’s Presidential Inaugural Committee announced that the national Lesbian and Gay Band Association, a group that represents LGBT bands in eighteen states, would perform at the inauguration. An historic choice, or so we’re told.
But let’s think about the symbolism of all this. At Obama’s inauguration, LGBT people are invited to dance, play music, and entertain, but the question of our dignity as human beings and our full enfranchisement as citizens … well, over that question looms the shadow of Rick Warren, his jaws still bloody from the evisceration of gay marriage in California.
I’m quite sure a man as smart and decent as Barack Obama doesn’t need me to explain the meaning of the term “minstrel show.”