What’s good for the goose is good for the gays. Anyone who supported the selection of controversial evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the prayer at the Inaugural ceremony must now support the selection of controversial Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson to give the opening prayer at the Lincoln Memorial concert that opens the weekend’s festivities. And those who opposed Warren should have the decency to oppose Robinson.
In both instances, Obama was either correct to choose a religious leader who is controversial but also both a symbolic and an actual leader for a defined segment of the population or he wasn’t. In both instances, the fact of controversy was either appealing or it wasn’t. If Obama wants to give a conservative evangelical a seat at the Democratic Party’s table he has every right to give a seat to the openly gay bishop of New Hampshire as well.
But, there was Joe Solomonese, the President of the Human Rights Campaign Fund, applauding the one having denounced the other. "Bishop Robinson models what prayer should be – spiritual reflection put into action for justice," said the gay rights official. "It is encouraging that the president-elect has chosen this spiritual hero for all Americans to lead the nation in prayer at the Lincoln Memorial inaugural concert."
I did not know that Solomonese had such distinct thoughts about what prayer should, and presumably should not, be. I am still guessing he doesn’t know Tertullian from tortellini. But, in addition to being a hero for some, not all, Americans, Bishop Robinson is at the center of a controversy that has split his church in two. He has not been, in the parlance of Washington, "a uniter not a divider." In the interviews I have seen, Robinson has shown a marked lack of respect and charity for those who disagree with his theological views and even an intolerance for those with more traditional views.
Sometimes, division is called for, sometimes not. But, why does Robinson get credit for dividing his church on the issue of homosexuality while Rick Warren gets no credit for dividing the evangelical movement by trying to broaden its political agenda beyond the standard issues of pelvic theology to include environmental concerns among other progressive issues?
The Rt. Rev. from New Hampshire displayed a similar myopia and, what is worse, a lack of Christian charity, in an interview on CNN. He repeated the claim that Warren had made highly offensive statements comparing homosexuality to pedophilia and polygamy. He failed to note that Warren apologized for the remarks. Nor did the Bishop acknowledge that the original remarks bore a more charitable interpretation as well. Warren was trying to hold up the uniqueness of traditional marriage and it was clear to this viewer that he was not intending to denigrate anyone.
I confess that one thing that changed: We can now see the Warren selection in the light of the Robinson selection. This has not caused me to abandon my defense of the Warren choice, but it does raise questions about the President-elect’s motives. Were these men chosen precisely because they are controversial? Is controversy the standard of effective Christian leadership? Is there a danger that having the government choose religious leaders who are engaged in controversies within their flocks will appear like the government is choosing sides in the religious controversies?
Let’s hope that Obama entertained a different point of view. Let’s hope he said to himself that religion in the public square will cause some controversy but that’s okay. Better to have religion engaged in the cultural discussions of our day, which should be controversial at times, than to have religion standing on the sidelines. I am quite sure the Deistic Founders would not agree, nor Roger Williams, the man who more than anyone else invented the separation of Church and State. But, better a controversial set of selections and the attendant discussion about the role of religion in society than for religion to be so boring it blends into the woodwork. And, I am still waiting to see a Catholic on the roster!