Rick Warren gets caught removing anti gay messages from his website. Good - it shows Obama's approach is working.by James Crabtree / December 24, 2008 / Leave a comment
Who’d have thought a jolly man in a beach shirt could cause such a rumpus. Last week, President elect Obama picked megachurch preacher Rick Warren to give his inaugural invocation. A mini row followed, largely on account of Warren’s support for California’s recent Proposition 8 gay marriage ban, egged on by unhappy gay leaders. Much liberal I-told-you-so-ing came next, including a rather heavy-handed parody of Warren’s expected remarks from Linda Hirshman, now fast-approach 30,000 views on the Huffington Post. Now further controversy, as it seems Warren has been found touching up his church’s website, in the process removing some choice language warning off “unrepentant” homosexuals from his congregation. Indeed, the church’s entire FAQ section seems lost to history, and with it some helpful on missing Biblical dinosaurs, whether pets go to heaven, and the thorny problem tithing on gross or net pay—unless, that is, you happen to have access to Google’s cache. (Briefly: dinosaurs “may have actually been mentioned” in the Bible, your trusty hound will wait for you in the clouds, and gross.)
These rows have a certain Christmas silly-season vibe. Nonetheless, they bring into focus the sometimes slippery beliefs of more modern church leaders. This time last year I visited Saddleback, to research a piece for Prospect on the rise of progressive evangelicals (Closing the God Gap, Prospect October 2008.) During the visit I was struck by the difference between the church’s formal and aesthetic belief systems. Sitting in what for want of a better phrase one might still call pews, Warren’s church seems fairly liberal. He isn’t exactly progressive on the genital issues, but he doesn’t go on about them either. Yet, look at the small print of the feedback cards tucked into the chair in front of you, and you’ll see that Saddleback is formally (if not obviously) linked to the Southern Baptist convention, a fierier outfit with rather firmer and more public views aboutwhat is, and what isn’t, a valid “alternative lifestyle.” And, yet, if you look at the congregation—supremely relaxed in beach shorts and T-shirts—it’s pretty clear that they aren’t there to denounce the sinners and the gays either. So, if the church and its followers are mostly liberal, and aren’t actively prejudiced against homosexuals, does it really matter that they say they are on paper?
The obvious answer to this is, yes; it does. It would be better if Warren could reconcile his faith with support for substantive legal equality. Nonetheless, my sense this miniseries of spats has caught the imagination, in part, because of surprise that he is anti-gay at all. On the surface he certainly looks like a man embodying Obama’s memorable phrase about “yes, we do have gay friends in the red states.” But his support for Prop 8 seemed to scotch this. For some on the left this confirmed that nearly all evangelicals—even the ones who seem nice on the surface—are secretely hate-mongers. But, for others, myself included, there was a (perhaps naive) genuine surprise that Warren would involve himself in such a campaign. It seemed to put an ends to the suspicion that Warren might some sort of closeted liberal; ready to come out properly when society was ready to accept him.
But does that mean Obama was wrong to pick him? I don’t think so. Indeed, the pick seems quite in keeping with the way I read Obama’s approach to change, and his faith. James Forsyth, the Spectator’s normally comprehensively knowledgeable writer on American politics, has a slightly odd article in their Christmas edition, in which he performs some unusual contortions in an attempt to undermine Obama’s claim to faith. Preident Bush’s approach to religion is, he argues, “a product of his own personal challenges, Obama’s is more instrumental; Obama attributes his faith to seeing what religion and churches could do for people.” Better, so this argument seems to run, to find faith at the bottom of a bottle, than a textbook. The claim to an instrumental also fits badly with the account of conversion given in Obama’s first book. Equally, I’m fairly sure that Obama agrees with Warren on most issues. But, on purely instrumental grounds, picking Warren is a smart tactical move.
But what does it say about his approach to gay rights? Forsyth followed the article with a blog post in which that there wasn’t “much audacity about Obama’s approach to gay rights.” In this, he ignores Obama’s support for revoking both the defence of marriage act and “don’t ask, don’t tell, along with his public opposition to Proposition 8 and support for civil unions, and same-sex adoption—while implicitly arguing that president should kick off his administration with a symbolic gays-in-the-military style ruckus; a move which Forsyth is much too canny an observer of American politics to think would be sensible. Clinton’s approach tried for short-term audacity, and got nowhere. Obama’s seems more prudent, and more likely to succeed. Gay leaders might not be delighted by it, but forging alliances with relatively moderate evangelicals makes longer term success on substantive issues more likely – and in turn, solid progress on these issues building to a more “audacious” settlement on gay rights in the future. The older evangelical movement leaders would have used this as a moment to pick a fight. But Warren didn’t. In fact, he cleaned up his act. And it’s not too much of a stretch to think that Warren’s decision to remove the anti-gay rhetoric from his website is a sign that Obama’s approach is already working.