Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Warren Piece

Rick Warren of Saddleback Church is to deliver Convocation at the Presidential Inagueration.
He has stated on the church website that unrepentant homosexuals are not welcome at his church. He supported California's Proposition 8 which rescinded the right of same-sex couples to wed.

Maybe the government shouldn't be in the marriage business.
Any maybe religious prayers should not be said at state functions.

But given that the government is in the marriage business, and given that prayers are said at state functions, I think that the views held by those who deliver prayers at state functions can sometimes matter, and in this case, they do.

When a religious figure presides at a state function, he plays a certain symbolic role, and is accorded a certain status. He is speaking as spiritual leader, or moral authority. Perhaps you don't consider him your spiritual leader, and you do not recognize his moral authority. But by picking Warren for this role Obama has in effect asked the American people to see him as a spiritual leader and a moral authority, or at least communicated the idea that he sees Warren as an appropriate fit for that role. It is an expression of respect for his spiritual and moral leadership.

If a religious leader speaks at a state function, and the speaker is known for regarding, treating, and arguing that other people should treat some members of the citizenry as undeserving of the full rights and privileges granted to other citizens, then that view is implicitly sanctioned as at least tolerable by those who are responsible for putting him in the role of spiritual and moral authority at the state function. Imagine having a preacher that has spoken out against interracial marriage at the inauguration. What kind of message would that send?

There are those who think that Warren's views are tolerable and even commendable. I don't agree, but we can have that argument another day. What troubles me is those who say they disagree with Warren about same-sex marriage, but think having him speak at the inauguration is not a problem.

Some of the arguments of the apologists:
  • Obama said he would talk to leaders of Iran and North Korea, and that was supposed to be OK. Rick Warren is not nearly as bad as those guys, so this should be OK too.
I'd have no problem with Obama talking to Rick Warren. Even without pre-conditions. I'd be happy for them to negotiate if they had something to negotiate about. But you wouldn't put Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong-il up there to sanction this big important national event. Why not? I'm not saying Warren is part of the axis of evil, but whatever reason you would have for not wanting a bad guy to cloud your big day should apply to Warren as well.
  • Obama is "reaching across the aisle" just like he said he would.
But Warren isn't a Republican congressman that liberals need to negotiate with in order to get legislation passed or something. Political negotiations among lawmakers on various sides of the same-sex marriage issue is probably a good and necessary thing, pragmatically. Perhaps reaching out to their constituents, the evangelicals and the like, is part of that process. But putting someone in what is considered a position of honor is not a matter of being willing to talk and negotiate with them. Its symbolic meaning is much more than that.
  • We can disagree about policy without being disagreeable.
It's not like we're disagreeing about a gas tax holiday. We're disagreeing about the permissibility of some people being denied rights that other citizens have, of treating some people as second-class citizens, of denying some committed monogamous couples privileges and benefits granted to others merely on the basis of their genders. I can't blame gays, lesbians, and allies for being a tad disagreeable at the moment.

And I'm not saying Obama should be disagreeable to Warren. If you discuss same-sex marriage, or any other controversial issue with Warren, by all means, behave like a perfect gentleman. But if you find your opponent's views morally problematic, don't put him up on a pedestal and ask for his blessing.
  • In the long run, this will do more good than harm for gays and lesbians.
Well, that's a prediction, and a counterfactual. (We'll never be able to compare the world where Warren spoke at the inauguration to the one where he didn't.) But apart from existential doubts about possible worlds, I don't know why we should think that's true. What can be accomplished for gays and lesbians that is less likely to happen without an anti-gay marriage minister speaking at the inauguration? Is it placating the opponents? or galvanizing them? Is it mobilizing the supporters? Or were they already mobilized after passage of Proposition 8?

And furthermore, it's a crassly consequentialist argument. I'm not saying consequentialism is crass, but consider this analogy. After Jessica Lunsford was abducted and murdered, her father became an activist and got Jessica's Law passed in many states, and (suppose for the sake of argument) numerous would-be victims of child molesters and predators are better off as a result of this course of events.

...and therefore there was nothing wrong with John Couey abducting, raping, and burying Jessica alive?

I'm not saying there's anything equivalent to abduction, rape, and murder going on here.
My point is that inviting Warren speak at the inauguration could be bad in itself, even if, by some strange course of events, it turns out to have good consequences.

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