Gays, others dismayed as Obama picks controversial pastor

By Mayank Chaya, IANS,

Chicago : The halo around president-elect Barack Obama slipped in the wake of his decision to invite one of the most trenchant denouncers of gay and lesbian rights to deliver the invocation at his inauguration on Jan 20.

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Controversial pastor Rick Warren, who has in the past compared homosexuality to paedophilia, will deliver the invocation at the historic inauguration of America’s first president of a mixed black and white heritage.

While Obama himself has projected the proposed invocation by Warren as in keeping with his commitment to create “an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans,” the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT) is hugely disappointed. They are particularly riled that someone who has rejected gay and lesbian rights with harshness should have been given a position of such prominence by a president promising to herald tolerance and moderation.

Openly gay Democratic Congressman Barney Frank seemed to sum up the sentiments of the community when he said in a blog, “Religious leaders obviously have every right to speak out in opposition to anti-discrimination measures, even in the degrading terms that Rev Warren has used with regard to same-sex marriage. But that does not confer upon them the right to a place of honour in the inauguration ceremony of a president whose stated commitment to LGBT rights won him the strong support of the great majority of those who support that cause.”

“If anyone is under any illusion that Obama is interested in advancing gay equality, they should probably sober up now,” wrote well known commentator Andrew Sullivan.

Warren praised Obama’s decision, saying, “I commend president-elect Obama for his courage to willingly
take enormous heat from his base by inviting someone like me, with whom he doesn’t agree on every issue, to offer the invocation at his historic inaugural ceremony.”

The invitation to Warren is obviously a shrewd political move by Obama whose election campaign centred on the theme of uniting America across many social, cultural and political divisions. He was always expected to walk that extra mile in his quest to reach out to those with whom he has serious differences, but the decision to invite a controversial evangelical leader is being seen as going too far by many on the left of American politics. Warren’s position on gay and lesbian rights was sharply highlighted recently when he supported a measure in California to outlaw same-sex marriage.

Invocations at the presidential inauguration are a tradition in a country where a debate is permanently on over the separation of the state and the church. In the Indian context it would be as extraordinary as an incoming prime minister enlisting the services of a pundit or a mullah to say prayers during the formal swearing-in ceremony.

Obama supporters argue that no one should be surprised that he is keeping his promise of practising inclusiveness as part of his political philosophy. “This is going to be the most inclusive, open, accessible inauguration in American history,” Linda Douglass, a spokeswoman for Obama, was quoted by CNN as saying.

Gay and lesbian rights are not the only subject on which Warren has been controversial. He has described abortion as a holocaust. On the less emotive subject of international politics, Warren has openly called for the assassination of Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.