Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Politically Correct Prayer

Ruth Melkonian


January 2, 2009

The United States was the first nation to constitutionally ban an established national religion, yet it has always had a strong civil religion that supports traditions such as clergy offering prayers at public events. Yet when President-elect Barack Obama announced that evangelical mega-church pastor Rick Warren would give the opening prayer at his inauguration, some critics were quick to raise very un-civil cries of protest.

Why? Not because of concerns about church-state separation but because of Warren’s position on a single issue: gay marriage.

This is ironic and unjust, as Warren has done more than almost any other mainstream evangelical leader to diversify the evangelical agenda and deescalate the culture war. In the last decade, Warren has even been praised in The New York Times as one of the “evangelicals a liberal can love” for his work in fighting poverty, supporting international human rights, fighting AIDS, working to combat global warming, and engaging in interfaith dialogue with Muslims.

Yet Warren’s attractiveness to some liberals was reversed when he gave public support to Proposition 8 in California, a ballot measure that banned gay marriage. He was blasted by Joe Solomonese of the Human Rights Campaign as being an “architect of the anti-gay agenda.” Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic and Kathryn Kolbert of People for the American Way accused Warren of being inflammatory and deprecating when he raised concerns that expanding the definition of marriage to include gays could open up marriage to other currently off-limit categories (incest, pedophilia, and polygamy).

By acting as if opposition to gay marriage is the only thing Warren has done in public life and vilifying him on that basis, single-issue activists are exacerbating the culture war, polarizing the warriors on both sides. In his career Warren has taken risks in reaching out to his critics in an effort to encourage discussion and seek common ground. But the reaction of many to Warren’s role in the inauguration suggests they are not interested in returning the favor. Unwillingness to compromise on any issue puts his harshest critics in the same camp as many on the far right—that is, the camp of those who will declare the culture war over only when they have achieved total victory. Neither extreme contributes to the kind of serious debate and constructive pragmatism people like Obama desire. Indeed, Obama’s decision not to back down on the selection of Warren should come as no surprise, given Obama’s campaign commitment to bringing people together from all sides.

On the issue of abortion, for example, Obama attracted broader bipartisan support by proposing an agenda to address the root causes of abortion and thereby to reduce the numbers. That is something most foes and supporters of abortion can agree on. Similarly, on the issue of gay rights, American leaders across the board need to be able to have a candid conversation without it dissolving into a no-holds-barred fight.

The country needs to engage in serious debate over the meaning of marriage, and Warren shows himself more ready to do that than those who make gay marriage their all-or-nothing issue and treat it as beyond debate. Most Americans express uncertainty about the issue, with a majority supporting civil unions but opposed to gay marriage. Indeed, this is the official position of Obama himself.

Both Warren and Obama manifest a breadth and seriousness about civic conversation that stands in refreshing contrast to the narrowness of the single-issue absolutists. While these men may differ on the issue of gay rights, their willingness to engage in debate, maintain respectful relations, and seek common ground where possible is the kind of leadership—and citizenship—that America needs now.
—Ruth Melkonian, Assistant Professor of Political Studies
    Gordon College

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”