Symbols matter, sometimes a lot, so it's hard not to sympathize with the gay rights groups that are very angry over Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren, a prominent evangelical minister, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Warren crossed the line when he compared gay marriage to incest and pedophilia. But I can also sympathize with what Obama is trying to do.
The media, describe the selection of Warren (opens in new tab) as a conciliatory gesture to evangelicals who opposed Obama's election. Gay rights advocates (opens in new tab) insist Obama is showing a "deep level of disrespect" to them and their cause. Some go even further, calling it a betrayal from Obama, given their support for him during the campaign. Others are riding to Warren's defense (opens in new tab), noting his many good works.
There's no question in my mind that the pick of Warren is an insult to gays, one that Obama could easily have avoided. But it was an unintentional insult and what's troubling is to see so many people react so stridently on one side or the other. I think you have to view the decision in the context of Obama's desire to change the way the people in this country talk with and listen to each other -- a change that ultimately would benefit everyone.
Obama isn't about to adopt Warren's view of gay rights; there's no danger of that and that's not what this is about. What it is about is Obama's often-stated belief -- and he said it again today (opens in new tab) when asked about the Warren pick -- that if we are ever to make any progress in this country, we have to be willing to listen to all points of view and not pick our friends and enemies based on their positions on any one issue. Obama didn't mention it, but it so happens that Warren -- besides being a fierce opponent of gay marriage -- is also a tireless worker in the fight against poverty and against AIDS in Africa, two issues on which he and Obama can work together.
Obama won this election in large part because he promised a new kind of politics -- one in which opposing sides seek practical solutions to common problems. That can't happen if we divide the country into those who are for us or against us and listen solely to "our" side.
So while I personally feel this is a decision that Obama shouldn't have made, prompting a fight he doesn't need, I find it understandable in the context of what he's trying to do. And in the end, I can only hope that matters more.
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