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Defacing Mr. Jefferson’s Wall

I didn’t know much about the Rev. Rick Warren until the Invocation Controversy erupted. What I’ve learned since makes me wince, of course. But just knowing that he’s a Baptist preacher and the founder of the fourth largest mega-church in the U.S. would cause me to make certain assumptions about his views on key “social questions.” I assume that he opposes abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, the teaching of evolution as fact rather than theory alongside “creationism” etc. He embraces a package of views consistent not only with monotheism but with the belief that the Bible is the literal Word of God and source of authority in this world.

I happen to find his take on reality deeply troubling. But the fact is, something like 25-30% of Americans are fundamentalist or evangelical Protestants.  This is one of those “sad facts” I list alongside National Geographic’s finding that 25% of Americans can’t find the United States on a world map. Or that 18% think the sun revolves around the earth, 500 years after Copernicus. Or that 25% will forever believe that Saddam Hussein had a major role in the 9-11 attacks. Ignorance plays a major role in the world, for godssakes.

But one who sees the ignorance has to look at the specificities of it. There are more or less harmless forms, like believing in astrology (as do about a third of Americans) and truly toxic forms, like believing in racial supremacy. And there are passive and active forms of both ignorance and stupidity.

Progressives, it seems to me, need to know how to pick their battles. And  I’m just a little concerned to find more protest among self-identified progressives about Obama’s inclusion of Warren as a brief actor in a soon-forgotten religious rite, on the grounds of recognizing religious diversity, than the inclusion of war hawks in his cabinet, on the grounds of tapping their years of “experience.”

What’s the bigger problem? That Warren, because of his religious baggage, campaigns for Proposition 8, and is despite that given a few minutes on TV to “invoke” the presence of God before the president gets inaugurated?

Or that Hillary Clinton, on the basis of her well-developed political ideology (which somehow gets depicted as something other than an ideology but rather some nebulous “experience”) is selected to be Secretary of State? This after all is a woman who speaks casually of “obliterating” Iran, a country of 65 million. Or that Robert Gates, with his history of involvement in Iran-Contra and the criminal war in Iraq, is re-certified on the basis of his “experience” as Secretary of Defense? Or that James Jones, advocate of a “surge” in the criminal war in Afghanistan, is chosen as National Security Advisor?

Warren is merely given his moment in the sun; Clinton, Gates, and Jones broad powers over the lives and deaths of millions of people. Which threaten us more? Which of these selections reflect more poorly on Obama’s judgment?

I take it—and it does not surprise me at all—that Warren comes off as a very affable guy. Check out Melissa Etheridge’s account of her encounter with “Pastor Warren” last month, and how her ire over his support for Proposition 8 somehow morphed into an agreement “to build bridges to the future.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/melissa-etheridge/the-choice-is-ours-now_b_152947.html Or read Juan Cole’s take on Warren as a “genuine, likeable man…more than likeable…admirable.” http://www.juancole.com/2008/12/rick-warren-i-love-muslims-i-happen-to.html

This is how preachers, and other salesmen, are supposed to be. It does not at all surprise me that Warren should tell Melissa that he has lots of her albums and that he loves gay people and goes to gay people’s homes and so on. Or that he tells interviewers that too much attention is focused on the gay question because there’s more sinning going on among straights.

That’s just good strategic compromising. He upholds the successful anti-gay marriage political campaign of the religious right which has produced such bitterness among Obama supporters, while assuring everybody that he’s not anti-gay. No not at all!

Of course from his point of view—not necessarily immediately discernible for those he’s reaching out to, who don’t see the condescension inherent in the Christian proselytization project—everybody’s a sinner, and just as Jesus consorted with all kinds of sinners and was chastised by the Pharisees for doing so (Luke 15:1) so a good pastor wants to similarly mix with the crowd in today’s USA. This is what salesmen call “getting your foot in the door.”

But he has to say: I know by the authority of holy scripture that marriage is between a man and women, and therefore I have to oppose laws allowing gay marriage. To ask him not to do so is to ask him not to be a Christian theologian of his particular school. One can question Obama’s judgment in selecting him to deliver the inaugural invocation (I personally don’t think there should be an invocation at all), but one can also see the shrewd political dialectics behind it. It pleasantly surprises the religious right, while hurting the feelings of the progressive Obama fans; but then Warren’s obliged to moderate his anti-gay tone somewhat, while some progressives moderate their stance against Warren and Obama more and more appears the reconciler he needs to be to make his presidency work.

But the “cultural wars” aside, there are the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the threat of wars elsewhere in Southwest Asia, and Obama’s cabinet of hawks waiting their turn in power. What sort of attention-catching invocation will they deliver? This should far more concern us that than the matter of “Pastor Rick.”

* * *

The inauguration ceremony will open with some musical selections from the United States Marine Band and welcoming remarks by Diane Feinstein, followed by the invocation by Warren, and close following the oaths of office for Biden and Obama with the benediction delivered by Rev. Joseph E. Lowery and the U.S. Navy Band playing the National Anthem.

The point of an invocation is to call down the divine presence and ask for some sort of blessing, in this case, for a successful presidency for Barack Obama. In arranging for so conservative a figure as Warren—standing, as it were, between God and the American people—to solicit this blessing, Obama just might produce an extraordinary piece of politico-religious theater to his advantage. That I suppose is the calculated risk.

The benediction is merely a second invocation at the end of a religious service. This one will be delivered by an African-American cleric more friendy to gay rights than Warren (although like Obama, not a supporter of gay marriage). Its inclusion just adds to the religiosity of what ought to be a secular affair.

Thomas Jefferson famously appealed for a “wall of separation between church and state.” Yet we have these religious rituals intruding into secular events such as presidential inaugurations, perhaps because the religious majority present would feel dissatisfied were they absent from the procedings. But rather than bickering about which cleric ought to do the honors, and whether (as Warren may very well do, invoke the name of Jesus Christ) would that we would simply heed Jefferson’s advice.

GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.

He can be reached at: gleupp@granite.tufts.edu

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu

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