About three years ago, a reporter at Fortune asked Rick Warren, the successful pastor whom the President-elect has asked to pray at his Inauguration, about homosexuality. "I'm no homophobic guy," Warren said. His proof? He has dined with gays; he has a church "full of people who are caring for gays who are dying of AIDS"; he believes that "in the hierarchy of evil ... homosexuality is not the worst sin." So gays get to eat sometimes even with Rick Warren! Then they get to die of AIDS possibly under the care of Rick Warren's congregants. And when they go to hell, they won't be quite as far down in Satan's pit as other evildoers.
But Warren did have a message of hope for gays: they can magically become heterosexuals. (He didn't explain how, but I suspect he thinks praying really hard would do it, as if most of us who grew up gay and evangelical hadn't tried that every night as teenagers.) Homosexuality, Pastor Warren explained in the virtually content-free language of the dogmatist, is "not the natural way." And then he went right for the ick factor, the way middle-school boys do: "Certain body parts are meant to fit together."
More recently, Warren told Beliefnet that he thinks allowing a gay couple to marry is similar to allowing "a brother and sister to be together and call that marriage." He then helpfully added that he's also "opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage." The reporter, who may have been a little surprised, asked, "Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?" "Oh, I do," Warren immediately answered. I wish the reporter had asked the next logical follow-up: If gays are like child-sex offenders, shouldn't we incarcerate them?
Rick Warren may occasionally sound more open-minded than Jerry Falwell, another plump Evangelical who once played a prominent role in U.S. politics. But he's not. Gays and lesbians are angry that Barack Obama has honored Warren, but they shouldn't be surprised. Obama has proved himself repeatedly to be a very tolerant, very rational-sounding sort of bigot. He is far too careful and measured a man to say anything about body parts fitting together or marriage being reserved for the nonpedophilic, but all the same, he opposes equality for gay people when it comes to the basic recognition of their relationships. He did throughout his campaign, one that featured appearances by Donnie McClurkin, a Christian entertainer who preaches that homosexuals can become heterosexuals.
Obama reminds me a little bit of Richard Russell Jr., the longtime Senator from Georgia who as historian Robert Caro has noted cultivated a reputation as a thoughtful, tolerant politician even as he defended inequality and segregation for decades. Obama gave a wonderfully Russellian defense of Warren on Thursday at a press conference. Americans, he said, need to "come together" even when they disagree on social issues. "That dialogue is part of what my campaign is all about," he said. Russell would often use the same tactic to deflect criticism of his civil rights record. It was a distraction, Russell said, from the important business of the day uniting all Americans. Obama also said today that he is a "fierce advocate for equality" for gays, which is given his opposition to equal marriage rights simply a lie. It recalls the time Russell said, "I'm as interested in the Negro people of my state as anyone in the Senate. I love them."
Many gays I know gave money to Obama, which mystified me. The favored explanation was that he doesn't "really" believe gays shouldn't be allowed to marry; he just has to say that in order to win. People seemed to feel that once he had won, he would find a way in his contemplative style to help convince Americans that gay people really do deserve basic equality. Instead, he has found a way to insult gay people deeply.
In California, some gay activists are planning to put marriage on the 2010 ballot so that Proposition 8 which (thanks partly to Warren's support) passed last month, banning marriage equality in the state can be undone. Gays will need to reach older, religious, and African-American voters in order to overturn Prop. 8 (those three groups all voted disproportionately for it). If gays hoped that President Obama would help, they may want to reconsider.
The only piece of good news is that Obama loves to raise money, and he won't want significant gay donors to stop organizing fundraisers for him. Having picked Warren to pray at the Inauguration and Republican Robert Gates to stay on at the Department of Defense (where Gates will likely continue the policy of investigating gay service members a policy he has the legal power to end with the stroke of a pen), Obama will now have to do something nice for the gays. Today, the Washington Times brings news that some retired military leaders are supporting William White, an openly gay man who is chief operating officer of the Intrepid Museum Foundation, to be Secretary of the Navy. That would be cool. But I'm not getting my hopes up.