The hysteria on the Left, especially gay rights activists, over President-elect Barack Obama’s selection of mega-church pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inaugural ceremony is comic. For those who care about the rights of gays and lesbians, however, the hysteria is also tragic, exposing just how poorly served the cause is by its apparent leaders.
Rev. Warren, unsurprisingly, supported Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that overturned the ruling of the California Supreme Court in favor of gay marriage. The Catholic bishops and most other religious organizations also supported the measure and, on election day, so did a majority of voters. Unprepared for this outcome, gay activists have been mounting protests since election day, targeting the Mormon Church especially and now Warren as well. But, where were the leaders of gay civil rights organization BEFORE the election making sure that in California of all places, they should have won at the ballot box?
The Human Rights Campaign Fund is the nation’s leading gay rights organization. They throw fancy fundraising dinners and have a fancy headquarters in Washington, but they have done precious little to actually promote civil rights. And, why they jumped on to the gay marriage bandwagon (which lacks majority support) when they had not succeeded in passing a federal non-discrimination bill (which enjoys majority support) is beyond me. HRC’s president Jay Solomonese issued a barely literate letter (syntax anyone?) to Obama opposing Warren’s selection.
The gay marriage movement was misguided from the start. Part of playing politics is calculating the reaction to one’s position and the consequences that flow therefrom. But, Andrew Sullivan decided he wanted to be a bride and – voila – an issue was born. Sullivan has always had a tin ear for American politics so perhaps he can be forgiven for failing to anticipate how and why attacking a central totem of the culture would provoke a backlash. As a result of the push for gay marriage, more than thirty states now have constitutional amendments banning gay marriage and civil unions but Sullivan and his partner were able to exchange vows in Provincetown.
Gay marriage advocates do not want to admit it but they have made life harder for gays in most states in America. When the Massachusetts Court first ruled in favor of gay marriage, I was living in Little Rock, Arkansas and my gay neighbors understood the significance of the decision for them immediately. They knew the backlash would make it less likely they would ever get the legal protections afforded by civil unions. "Is it really that hard to be gay in Boston?" one of them asked. Civil unions may be half of a loaf to gay marriage advocates, but is it right to insist on a full-loaf when your insistence robs others of even their half?
California voters could also be forgiven for objecting to the role of their courts in all of this. By pursuing a strategy of winning the right to marriage through the courts, gay marriage advocates have alienated those who simply object to the most non-democratic branch of government changing cultural norms on a 4-3 vote. The Constitution requires super-majorities for certain fundamental acts, like a constitutional amendment, so why should a 4-3 vote of a court be able to make such a sweeping change? And, the Court’s ruling was offensive. It declared support for civil unions and opposition to gay marriage the equivalent of Jim Crow’s "separate but equal" segregation of the races. Mind you, Obama holds this position: he supports civil unions but opposes gay marriage. Does anyone really think gays in 2008 face the obstacles, legal and cultural, that blacks faced in the South in the 1950s? Are gays legally oppressed in any meaningful sense of the word? Mr. Sullivan and Mr. Solomonese don’t appear oppressed: They appear on cable news.
To be clear, the anti-gay marriage movement has its own problems. Gay marriage is hardly the "threat" to traditional marriage that divorce is. I don’t see Rev. Warren arguing for a proposition to repeal California’s liberal divorce laws. And, their concern for traditional marriage should not, and need not, exclude the extension of civil rights to other unions. In Ireland and Latin America, Catholic bishops have actually led the effort to find a compromise that extends benefits to people who are domiciled together, whether they are gay partners or cousins in difficult economic circumstances, while retaining the linguistic and cultural uniqueness of traditional marriage in their countries’ laws. Yes, gay couples will likely enjoy basic rights in Uruguay before they do in Arkansas.
There are many more aspects of the Warren selection that deserve attention. It is striking to me that evangelicals did not bolt the GOP fold in significant numbers while a significant – and in some states decisive – number of Catholic voters did switch from red to blue, yet Rev. Warren got the nod rather than, say, the Archbishop of Washington. The heat that Warren is getting from his right flank is also worthy of note. And, the basic ignorance of Western intellectual history displayed by several leftie talking heads should make one laugh the next time they accuse the right of being anti-intellectual: Kathryn Kolbert from People for the American Way gets the gold for her caricature of basic Christian theology.
The most important point, however, is that Obama is showing himself to be a deft politician. Warren’s blessing will mean more to him than the current kerfuffle from gay rights activists. Warren is an avenue to those evangelicals who might yet be persuaded to come into the Democratic fold. That is Obama’s political objective and he took a big step towards it with his choice.
Michael Sean Winters