Saturday, December 20, 2008

Obama’s Choice for Invocation Speaker Angers Gays, Raises Larger Questions

President elect Obama has chosen a speaker for his inauguration a clergyman who is adamantly opposed to gay marriage and the acceptance of homosexuality as a normal behavioral variant.

Rick Warren, the pastor of the Saddleback mega-church in Southern California will be delivering the invocation at Barack Obama’s innauguration. The President elect has reiterated his support of gay rights, even as he defends his choice of Reverend Warren as a speaker.

Obama described his views as “absolutely contrary” to those of Reverend Warren, reiterating his commitment to being “a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.”

Obama further explained his choice, noting “During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented. And that’s how it should be, because that’s what America is about. That’s part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated,” he said.

The reaction among gay activists was swift and predictable. Geoff Kors, director of Equality California, a gay activist group blasted the choice noting “He selected someone who actively worked to eliminate the rights of me and millions of others.”

Kors was a leading opponent of Proposition Eight, a measure that would have precluded gay marriage in California. Reverend Warren was a supporter of the measure. Far from being merely a preacher, Warren is active in programs fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa.

“If that’s Obama’s idea of a new day, we are in a lot of trouble.” noted Kors.

Conservatives welcome the choice of speaker as a sign that Obama wants to reach out to them. Although the choice of speakers is largely a cosmetic gesture, it is being scrutinised for insights into how the new chief executive will assemble advisers and opinions. It is fairly certain that neither gay activists nor religious opponents of homosexuality are likely to abandon their opinions on human sexuality. The debate on gay rights is likely to be a fixed feature of the political landscape. Obama’s choice of speaker shows a mixture of pragmatism and open mindedness.

In the world of politics, gestures in public are often counter balanced by concessions behind the scenes. It is hard to believe that this will not happen with gay rights or any other issue in the Obama administration. A cosmetic show of raucous disagreement masking a determined and well defined agenda is fairly easy to orchestrate. Anyone who deals with Obama will need to “keep their eyes on the prize” and not be distracted by matters containing more show than substance.

On the other hand, this controversy is an opportunity to articulate a principle that should be a cornerstone of political debate. Most religions believe in a hereafter and an Unseen Being who demands conformity to behavioral norms and a canon of belief. May believe that others are going to hell, fallen from grace or even cursed. We coexist with those whose religious beliefs might be totally with odds with ours. As repulsive as it might be to modern sensibilities, it is a basic right to believe that someone else might be headed to hell. What is prohibited by law is acting on this belief with violence. You can believe that someone is going to hell. You can not send them there ahead of schedule.

Modern debate on the role of religion in public policy formation are very sloppy about this. People indignantly accuse others of intolerance without a clear cut legal definition of what intolerance is. Back when John Kennedy was running for President, people asked if he was loyal to Rome or to Washington. JFK established his commitment to upholding our nations laws to the satisfaction of all and was elected president. In our time, scriptural literalists of any sort encounter the same level of distrust as was encountered by John Kennedy.

There is the real possibility that loyalty to a higher law might conflict with the law of the land. There may be a lonely moment in the life of a citizen when he must walk o perilous path outside the laws of the law of the land in obedience to a higher call. Patrick Henry, Eli Cohen the Israeli spy and the generals who in 1944 attempted to assassinate Hitler heeded this perilous call. It is an uncharted path that can not be legislated. It is mentioned in the preamble to our nation’s declaration of independence.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government…”

A nation in which in which this dichotomy is not engraved in the hearts of its citizens runs the serious risk of becoming a tribe of sociopaths. A nation in which higher law is frivolously invoked to ennoble disobedience risks a descent into anarchy. States in which terrorists rule the streets provide vivid examples of ths type of folly and its deadly consequences.

Another form of intellectual sloppiness is the opprobrium attached to mixing religion and politics. A legislator who consults his scriptures, St Augustine, the Talmud or other religious literature to guide him in his duties is regarded with suspicion. On the other hand, someone who consults a modern day political thinker, or a political journal is treated with respect. A look at a person’s bookshelf is a look into their soul. A mix of religious literature and secular wisdom should be expected to guide our elected leaders. We are almost at the point where a Bible is hidden behind a copy of Playboy, and it is downright silly.

It is important for the clarity of public discourse , the vibrancy of public debate and the survival of our freedom for us to be aware of the distinction between spiritual beliefs and practical codes of behavior. We are a nation of racial, ethnic and religious diversity. It is to be expected that this will be reflected in varied bodies of opinion.

Abraham the Father of the Jewish people used to entertain guests. According to Talmudic narrative, he would fead his guests and speak to them about G-d. At the end of the meal, he would ask that the thank G-d for the meal with a prayer. A story is told of a very old man who Abraham chased in anger from his table because he insisted in thanking his idol rather than G-d. It is reported that G-d scolded Abraham for his anger at the old man.

“That man is in his nineties. I put up with him for almost a century. All I asked was that you put up with him for a few hours.” G-d is reported to have said.”Is that so difficult?”

The nature of our physical existence is that G-d is hidden in the physical world. In the words of my rabbi, Rabbi Abraham Lipskier of Morristown New Jersey (Now in Seagate) ” G-d knows how to hide better than you know how to look for him.” A hidden G-d is basic to the nature of this world. As a consequence, there is bound to be a wide range of different opinions about religion and politics, and about religion in politics.

To me, this Midrash (Jewish Talmudic narrative) is vitally important. It is the cornerstone for a theology of religious tolerance. I do not mean by this the bland and equivocating belief that all faiths are equally valid. I believe that my faith is the best, that it is the wellspring of all truth. I also know that you, the reader believe that of your own faith.

Secularists have proven themselves to be amply capable of great intolerance. Stalin’s body count provides one such example. Madalyn Murray’s legendary hatred of her own son who became a Christian provides a much milder example.

Secularists and believers are in a battle for the hearts and minds of humanity. Islamic fanatacism has soiled the name of G-d in public discourse. Those who believe that G-d has a place in government are at a great disadvantage in the current political climate.

It is critical that a theology of tolerance be developed and internalised by believers. Uncertainty is as much a fact of our earthly existence as any physical phenomena. A spark of basic decency in the human species cries out for a way to reconcile absolute certainty with the immutable convictions of others. A perception of G-d’s greatness should engender not haughtiness but humility.

If people of faith can introduce and model this synthesis of religious certainty and respect for others, it will be a priceless contribution to peace in the home, the workplace and the world of politics.

President elect Obama has correctly read the desire of millions of Americans who embrace the airing of religious and philosophical diversity. He seems to understand that millions of Americans disagree with much of what he espouses and that this disagreement can not be wished or scolded away. Although his choice of speaker at his inauguration is largely symbolic, it is nevertheless an important gesture.

A job is more than the end product. It is also the process. Life is not only the destination, it is also the journey. We are facing critical tasks and decisions in the months and years ahead. If we as a nation can master the art of disagreement, it will be a lasting legacy. We must not let the opportunity slip through our fingers.

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