Saturday, December 20, 2008

Human Rights Apply to All Peoples, Places, Times: The Human Rights Backdrop of the Rick Warren Selection

The Rick Warren choice is now becoming old news. In the instant-flash attention span of the American public and its media mavens, we’re now supposed to move on to something else.

And Christmas is just around the corner. The quintessential American family holiday, the day when we stop to celebrate—no matter who we are and what our religious background—the Christian ownership of this nation with the soul of a church, the centrality of family (mama, papa, children around the dinner table, bien entendu) to the very foundations of our society.

Just get over it. Move on. Smile, lift a glass, bask in Christmas warmth. It could be worse. Prepare to welcome into your living room the smiling face of a reverend who depicts you as a pedophile when the new president is inaugurated; keep practicing your kowtow to the claims of a hate movement disguised as religion, right at the beginning of a new administration in which you expected something new, something hopeful, to take place.

Don’t take offense at the message that you and yours are outside the scope of the hope. Crumbs feed, after all. They may not satiate hunger. They may outrage, when you mouth your dry bits as those who are whole human beings rather than 3/5 of a human eat the entire loaf of bread in your presence.

Be glad you have the crumbs. It could be worse.

I cannot promise that I will forever leave the Rick Warren topic behind now, as many other commentators are doing. When I feel strongly that important principles have been violated, it’s in my nature to keep fighting—as people who take me to be meek and pliant often discover to their surprise, particularly when they have counted on my being what a friend once called “their juicy little victim.”

And even if I slip into silence about the Rick Warren choice, I won’t be silent in my soul. I’ll keep mulling over the significance of an inexplicably callous political choice designed to humiliate many of us and to tell many more of us that we are outsiders to the dominant religious ethos of this nation with the soul of a church.

As I mull, I will continue keeping my ear to the ground for places in which an aging gay couple can live a more humane life than this nation as things now stand. Places in which religion as the purveyor or hate is not enshrined, given a place of honor, as continues to be the case in this country.

I mean it. I have had enough, and given the chance, I would uproot myself in a heartbeat, now that I have seen what the new president is capable of, at the very outset of his presidency.

Before I make some concluding comments, a few more statements of the past several days, to which I’d like to draw attention. I am very taken by Jeffrey Feldman’s argument that many Americans are tired of tinkerers, when it comes to civil rights issues. We are, I have proposed repeatedly, tired of liberal expediency in the area of human rights.

Rights are rights. To turn them into “issues” with which we need to tinker, and about which we should be permitted to temporize and talk to no effect until we have gained consensus, undermines all human rights of all groups, not merely the group of human beings in whose case we find it expedient to drag our feet. The group whom we ask to be content with the 3/5-of-a-person definition, while others around him and her are defined as fully human.

I think that Feldman is absolutely correct to view the Warren decision from the standpoint of civil rights, and to argue—as Bayard Rustin argued back in the 1980s—that gay rights are now the epicenter of the civil rights struggle in this country. An epicenter that we cannot ignore, any more than we ignored the rights of slaves or of women in the past, unless we want to undermine our democracy at a profound level. Here’s Feldman:

The [Warren] decision suggests that on civil rights issues, Barack Obama might be more of a tinkerer than a leader. . . .

Marriage equality for gays and lesbians is not just some "social issue" akin to school uniforms, warning labels on music or smoking in restaurants. It is the current epicenter of the civil rights movement in America.

That has not always been the case. When Lincoln took office, the abolition of slavery was the epicenter. When Wilson took office, the women's suffrage movement was the epicenter. When FDR took office, poverty was the epicenter. When Kennedy took office, segregation was the epicenter.

Thinking about Obama's presidency in terms of an 'epicenter' of civil rights changes how we think about Rick Warren speaking at the inauguration.

Translating Rick Warren into the terms of previous civil rights eras is the key to seeing why his role at Obama's inauguration is so troubling. By comparison, if this were Lincoln's inauguration, Rick Warren would have been the equivalent pro-slavery pastor giving the invocation. If this were Wilson's inauguration, Rick Warren would have been the equivalent of an anti-women's suffrage pastor saying a prayer. For FDR, he would have been the same as inviting a pastor opposed to rights for the poor. For Kennedy, he would have been the same as inviting a pastor who spoke out repeatedly about the dangers of desegregation.

In each of these cases, for the president-elect to invite the a voice known for arguing against progress -- and to do so in the name of political peacemaking, as Barack Obama has done with Rick Warren -- would have revealed a tinkerer on civil rights, not a leader (

A tinkerer and not a leader: that is, in my view, a damning indictment of the president many of us worked hard to elect. I hope it turns out to be a misplaced judgment. I have reason to wonder, though—particularly when the Warren decision sets a context for his entire presidency, because it places this kinder-gentler member of the religious right (swampland for sale in Florida, if you believe that) front and center as the pastor of the new administration from its inception.

Andrew Sullivan also points to the centrality of civil rights, and questions of right and wrong that demand response and not tinkering or temporizing, in the Warren discussion:

Civil rights are not about left and right; they are about right and wrong. And the hurt that this choice has caused is not a function of an alienated base, it seems to me, so much as salt on the wound of Proposition 8. I understand why Obama did this. I just wonder if he understands how deeply hurtful it is to be asked to pray with someone who has compared my marriage with the sexual abuse of children, incest and polygamy. Yes, I am, in Warren's eyes, the equivalent of a pedophile, as is my husband. This comparison is what Warren calls his commitment to "model civility."

Some model, some civility (

And Paul Jenkins is angry—justifiably angry. Angry enough to encourage gay citizens to boycott the inauguration. As he notes, the gratuitousness of this decision is what sticks in the throat. Obama is, as Jenkins says, at the top of the world. He has nothing at all to gain from kissing up to the religious right and much to lose, among those who hoped for an entirely new tenor to our political life now that Obama has been elected:

Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration is dreadful. His explanation is, if possible, even worse. He shrinks Warren's grotesque comparisons down to a "disagreement," as if we were talking about ethanol subsidies. But we are not. In fact, we are not even talking about marriage rights, we are talking about demonizing an entire group of Americans for the purpose of religious indoctrination, political gain and finance. . . .

The small, short-term advantage he gets from associating so closely with a hate-mongerer gives us a pretty good idea of where gay people stand in the president-elect's moral and political calculations. It wasn't always so of course, as I recall at least one fundraising event at the home of a gay couple where Obama raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars at one of the roughest moments of his campaign. There were also the millions of hours of volunteer work put in by gay people all over the country, and endless donations and endorsements. . . .

And let us start by walking away from an inauguration at which we will have to sit (or stand a mile away) and watch the man we put so much hope into betray us so deeply in the first seconds of his presidency (

Calls to boycott the inauguration. From folks who gave much and worked hard for the election of the man being inaugurated. One wonders what Obama thought he would gain by stepping on us in this way—needlessly, at the start of his administration, when he could so easily have chosen a pastor with no history of hateful speech and action regarding gay human beings; when he need not have alienated and disappointed some of his strongest supporters both in the gay community and the progressive wings of the Democratic party.

One wonders if the decision is merely ham-fisted, the decision of someone who truly does not understand (or seek to understand) the depth of pain he is inflicting, on the heels of the painful proposition 8 victory. The decision of an evangelical Christian who, in his heart of hearts, does not see gay human beings as fully human (3/5 of a person), who imagines that he can talk about human rights while allying with those who trample on the human rights of gay persons, without being taken to task for inconsistency. Since we all know that gay persons do not have the legitimate claim on the conscience of bona fide minority groups whose human rights are real and not special rights . . . .

Or is the decision cynical political calculation, a decision premised on the certainty that the gays won’t jump ship, since they have no place else to go: crumbs or nothing at all.?Is this a venal opportunistic attempt to play to the broad base of evangelical voters who, for the first time in decades, are well-disposed to the Democratic party, but not at all willing to accord rights to gay citizens?

Whatever the motivation of this senseless act of gratuitous cruelty to a group of citizens already smarting from recent political events, it is an act now producing strong disaffection of some of the new president’s staunchest supporters, right as he begins his term of office. Where Paul Jenkins talks about boycotting the inauguration, Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Jane Smiley notes the lavish donations she gave to the Obama campaign and the countless hours she spent working for Obama’s election.

She doesn’t intend to give any more. Not until it becomes clear whether the new president values those who have buttered his bread, or Rick Warren:

Rick Warren gets a free ride, tax-wise, from me, because his political action committee is disguised as a "church". That's bad enough, and I plan to work hard to take away his free ride, but what's worse is that Joe Biden is asking me again and again for a donation so that he and Barack Obama can give Rick Warren, hate-monger, a platform. Joe, I've watched the transition and I've held my tongue and given you guys a chance to show your true colors. But don't ask me for any more money until you figure out that Rick Warren hasn't been buttering your bread. People like me have been doing that, and we are getting a little ticked off (

I have an e-friend, an ordained minister, who has followed Smiley's line of protest. She has sent the Obama folks a letter asking for her donations throughout the campaign to be refunded. Her letter notes that she doesn't know how to estimate the monetary value of the many hours she spent working for Obama's election. If she could do that, she'd ask for reimbursement for her labor, too.

And as we prepare to listen to Rev. Warren address the Almighty on our behalf on inauguration day (well, those of us who will still be listening and watching), this news just in: When France presented a petition to the United Nations this week that would extend the UN definition of human rights to gay human beings, the United States refused to endorse the petition.

We sided with the Arab nations that criminalize homosexuality, making it a capital crime. And with the Vatican, which is fighting hard against this human rights initiative even though it was presented to the UN by an historically Catholic nation, though it was read to the UN by the representative of another Catholic country, Argentina, and though it was endorsed by all member nations of the European Union, as well as by our allies, Japan and Australia.

We stand proudly apart. America, the exception, the nation with the soul of a church. The evangelical nation where one may hate freely in the name of God, and still remain in the mainstream. We stand with the countries that execute gay human beings.

As the Dutch foreign affairs minister, Maxime Verhagen, notes re: this UN resolution, human rights are human rights are human rights. You can only support curbing the human rights of any group if you assume that that group is not fully human, not human as you are human:

The Dutch foreign affairs minister, Maxime Verhagen, said countries that endorsed that 1948 document had no right to carve out exceptions based on religion or culture that allowed discrimination against gays.

"Human rights apply to all people in all places at all times," he said. "I will not accept any excuse."

That’s how the European Union sees this epicentric human rights issue of our time, despite the exercised reaction of the gentlemen at the top of the Catholic church. We Americans don’t see it that way.

To our shame. And it was to eradicate that shame—shame at the inconsistent, deplorably weak stance on human rights of recent U.S. administrations—that many of us worked hard to elect the new president. Who has invited a pastor to give his inauguration invocation, who clearly stands with our current leaders and against the human rights of gay persons, against the growing consensus of most other Christian nations around the world, re: gay rights.

We elected Obama to lead us in a different election. To lead us. Now, given his invitation to Rick Warren, we’re left wondering: where does he stand on this UN human rights initiative, and regarding the rights of gay human beings?

God help me, I’m not so sure now.