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Chill Out About Rick Warren!

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Message Ed Menken
As a strong supporter of Barack Obama, and the gay rights movement, I find the uproar about Obama's selection of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation to be understandable on the one hand, but self-serving and shortsighted on the other.

No one can argue that Warren's position on gay rights isn't ridiculous and detestable to all those, both gay and straight, who are committed to gay rights, including the right to marry. And anyone who supports those rights is bound to be disappointed at Obama's choice. But the level of anger among some demonstrates several unfortunate things.

First, it should be noted that Warren is being equally excoriated by as many Christian fundamentalists as Obama is by gay rights supporters. But Warren has not declined the invitation. Yet it seems that few on the left are willing to look at the potential benefits, and not just the negatives, of Warren's invocation for the Obama administration.

It would appear that those who are most upset about it aren't asking themselves whether it's likely, or even possible, that Rick Warren is going to have any influence whatsoever on Obama, with respect to gay rights, a woman's right to choose, or any religiously-driven policy initiative. Not going to happen.

It would also seem that those who are most upset are giving little thought to the enormity of the crises and challenges facing Obama on the day he takes office. It should be clear to every progressive that he is going to need the broadest possible support from the American people in order to avoid having this country slide into complete catastrophe. Among the support he'll need are the millions of people who respect and admire Warren, and who will see in Obama a leader who, although he clearly and unequivocally stands in opposition to many of Warren's religiously-rooted positions, is nevertheless willing to join him in a mutual commitment to fight poverty, HIV-Aids, and climate change. If Obama can successfully bring millions of Christian Evangelicals into the ranks of those who care about and are determined to help strengthen our economy, end the war in Iraq, eliminate torture once and for all, and repair America's place in the world, it will be much easier to accomplish all that must be done.

There will, of course, be many Christian fundamentalists and political ideologues who will oppose virtually all of Obama's policies and initiatives. But if Obama - and his supporters - can peel away enough Evangelicals from the historical Republican "base", he will achieve something that no Democrat would imagine being able to accomplish in the foreseeable future. Through Warren himself, and his much-maligned invitation to Obama two years ago to speak at Saddleback Church, a split began to take shape within the Evangelical community. That split, especially among younger Evangelicals, has been growing. And Warren's inaugural invocation will continue to accentuate and enlarge the number of Christian Evangelicals who will support and become positively involved in the Herculean efforts that lie ahead for all Americans.

I recognize and appreciate the offense being taken by Warren's role at the inauguration. But I look forward to a time, without being naive, when there are conversations between religious liberals and Evangelicals happening all over the country, when Evangelicals come to understand that while they are free to believe what they will, they cannot and should not attempt to impose their beliefs on others. The continuing dialogue between Obama and Warren, along with many, many others, might well be the beginning of a new era of tolerance and respect in a country that has suffered too long from the divisions that have plagued us, wrought by Religious absolutists who took joy from their successes at attempts to keep us divided.

Indeed, with the continuing interaction of people of good will - on both sides of the divide - there may well come a time when the majority of Americans recognize that same-sex marriage poses no real threat to "traditional" marriage or families. Polls already show that the public's long held resistance to the idea is waning. And although there is not yet a majority, the small steps being taken by leaders like Barack Obama, through his friendship with Warren, his commitment to reach out to people who hold different views, and his commitment to be president of all the people, is a model that those of us who consider ourselves "progressives" might consider emulating. No, I'm not suggesting that we throw a birthday party for James Dobson, or a benefit dinner for Pat Robertson. Obviously, there will be those that simply can't or won't be willing to adopt a position of tolerance and understanding. But we progressives can - if we choose to - begin to engage those who, like Warren and many others, recognize that there are indeed issues and ideas that we can agree on, and that we are all human, with faults and frailties, and that regardless of our religious beliefs or non-beliefs, there are important things that we can do together to help our country, the world, and generations to come.

We progressives have a choice. We can dig in our heels and declare that we have nothing to talk about with people who disagree with us on issues that we feel strongly about. We can ignore them or castigate them. We can - as we have for some time - claim that they are thoughtless, ignorant, and hate-filled. And some are. But at this "defining moment", when there seems to be a growing crack in the wall that has divided us, when an increasing number of Evangelicals are declaring their willingness to join with us in working on a number of challenges together, we might serve our long-term interests infinitely better if we turn our attention to peeling away more and more people from the grip of Dobson and Robertson, and create that new era of tolerance, mutual respect, and an appreciation for diversity.

The choices are clear. We can continue to demean and discount those who have angered us over the years for their mean-spiritedness, and even hate, and thereby assure the maintenance of the perpetual divide. Or we can pursue the peeling away that Obama has begun, and find that the worst extremists are increasingly marginalized while genuine progress is seen on the social and other issues that we care so deeply about. We can choose to be pissed off at Obama because of the invitation to Warren, or we can rise to the occasion, look beyond our immediate self-interest, and genuinely move forward to create that "better world" that we've championed for our entire lives.

So, will we allow the anger of the moment to cloud our view of the broader picture? Or will we swallow hard, recognize the disappointing event as an opportunity, and do all we can to help this historic president who holds such promise for breathing new life into a divided society and a hurting nation? Will we allow the anger to blind us in the way that so many Evangelical leaders have been blind for so long? Or will we prove, after all, that there is indeed wisdom, foresight, and an ability to step beyond our own prejudices and disappointments in the progressive movement to create that better world we've always claimed was possible?

There is always time for anger or hate. But the moments that open a path toward real progress are fleeting and rare. This may be one of them.


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Ed Menken is a life-long, self-described "unapologetic progressive", a proud member of the ACLU, and a strong supporter of Barack Obama.
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