Monday, December 22, 2008

The Religious Right and Rick Warren: Time for Debate Is Over

Criticism of the new president’s selection of Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at January’s inauguration is waning and the management process setting in. Management as in filing the critiques away under various labels and getting on with the really important business at hand.

In my view, this understandable political-cultural move to stasis tragically evades an important opening for a conversation we have long needed to have in this nation—about the privileged role of the religious right and its corrupting influence on us and our culture. Somehow—or perhaps the obtuseness is deliberate?—the conversation we most need to have now is precisely the one we are not having. And do not intend to have.

But first to the filing away of critiques. I predict that the process of fallout management will use a number of filing labels:

Why can’t we all just get along? This file will bulge. Its label represents the official party line of the new administration, after all—bridge-building, conciliation, bringing everyone to the table (and hoping we just won’t notice that the “inclusive” table lacks gay representation, and that all guests are asked to maintain deferential silence as the voice of Rick Warrens booms forth, overpowering all other voices).

The “just get along” file spins the justifiably anger of most gay and many progressive Americans at the Warren selection as fragmentation: an attack on consensus; a refusal to play with enemies; a giving way to corrosive anger that overlooks the self-control of other marginalized groups, such as African Americans, faced with generations of oppression. This file also often has a religious sub-label—forgive and forget—which, I believe will have ever-increasing force as attempts to marginalize and demonize gay Americans outraged at the Rick Warren selection gain strength.

You think you have it bad? Clear indicators are emerging that not merely the religious right and its powerful political allies intend to play black and gay suffering against each other as the new administration begins. Increasingly, the centrist media are playing the same game, resurrecting, for instance, representations of lynching from the 19th century even as reports flood in of increasing present-day atrocities against LGBT Americans—reports of which there is not a peep in centrist media outlets.

As I have noted repeatedly on this blog, the game of playing the suffering of one oppressed group against that of another is atrocious. Both the suffering of people of color due to their pigmentation and the suffering of gay people due to their sexual orientation are unmerited, horrendous, absolutely unjustifiable. Both forms of suffering are suffering: whether the man cracking one’s skull does so because he loathes one’s color or one’s orientation is beside the point to the person whose skull is being broken. As is the question of whether the pain of the broken skull hurts more if one is black than if one is gay. Or if one belongs to an acceptable as opposed to unacceptable minority group.

In my view, we’d stand the chance of being a much better society if we were informed about all types of avoidable, unmerited suffering imposed by the powerful on the powerless. Media with a conscience, media that care about preserving and fostering democracy, have an obligation to tell the stories of all outrageous assaults on the humanity of all oppressed minorities.

Isn’t it interesting, though, that just as we come to the verge of a fractious national debate about the role of the religious right in our culture and about the illicit playing of black suffering against gay suffering—a debate our managers do not intend for us to have—we rediscover pictures of lynchings, while we remain totally silent about pictures of gay people stabbed, beaten, raped, or with heads bashed in? We remain silent about the atrocities taking place around us right now while shaking our heads at ones in the past.

This is clearly a diversionary tactic, one designed to cast doubt on the claims of gay Americans about discrimination and oppression. It is a tactic designed to shut gay Americans up by playing the unmerited suffering of people of color against the merited suffering of gays. It is a tactic one employed not only by those on the right eager to set two oppressed minority groups against each other. It is a diversionary game also being played by those in the center—to undercut the persuasiveness of gay voices, of gay critiques, of gay witness. Why this need, I wonder?

I want to propose that the need is rooted in a concern by the mainstream to shield evangelical religion from critique—that is, to shield from critique toxic forms of evangelical religion that have mainstreamed themselves in the latter half of the 20th century in the United States, and which seek to continue their hegemony under the new president. The fierce, stolid reaction of a large number of Americans to the critique of Rick Warren’s selection as a specifically gay critique—one the mainstream chooses to see as rooted in pique and illicit claims to victimhood—has everything to do with America’s addiction to evangelical religion. In particular, to the evangelical religion of the right.

The problem many Americans have with the gay critique of Warren’s selection is not due precisely to homophobia, though that’s an aspect of the reaction. The central thrust of the defense of Obama’s choice is to shield the evangelical religion of the religious right from criticism.

We have long been a nation in which evangelical Christianity sees itself—and is widely regarded—as a state religion. What evangelicals choose to bless is blessed. What—or whom—they curse is cursed. Blessed and cursed by the political sphere.

In recent decades, as the focus of American evangelicalism has shifted to the right, the religious right has increasingly represented itself as the official voice of evangelical religion in the life of the nation. Only a minority of Americans actively belong to the religious right. A much larger majority, however, not only defend the views of the religious right, but tacitly endorse those views while remaining distant from the political initiatives of this movement.

The religious right has had tremendous success at mainstreaming itself while maintaining a rhetoric of hate and division in our democratic society. Rick Warren is the growing edge of the mainstreaming process—the kinder and gentler face of right-wing American evangelicalism, if you will. He is, after all, iconic: smiling, avuncular, a bit chunky, goateed—the kind of nice guy we imagine we’d like to have in our living rooms to down a beer with us as we cheer a football team.

Such a face cannot represent evil. Can it? If it does, then we somehow represent evil. And that is not who we are, as a people. We are a nation uniquely blessed by God, led by God, set up by God, charged with a divine mission to be a city on a hill for the rest of the world.

And no one stands closer to the top of that hill than Rick Warren—than the movers and shakers of the religious right. Than their current kinder and gentler representatives who both bash gays in country and assist (heterosexual) Africans with AIDS overseas.

To repudiate Rick Warren and what he stands for is to repudiate ourselves—our foundational myths about what we stand for and who we are. The religious right has adroitly exploited those myths for several decades now and has worked to convince us that any criticism of their movement and its goals is criticism of the religious foundations of our society that will result in social decay. Criticize the Rick Warrens of the land, and you are criticizing the bible. The flag. Religion in general. The family. The traditional family. God.

This is why Mr. Obama has invited Rev. Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration. This is why he has given this particular representative of the religious right the highest possible profile in the inaugural ceremony—the symbolic plum job of calling God’s blessing down on the new administration. From the mountaintop. Where he speaks with God and divines God’s will for the rest of us. The mountaintop he has attained not merely through his own merits, his skill at preaching, the acuity of his theological insight, his excellence at living the gospel.

The mountaintop where he has been placed by very powerful economic and political interest groups who intend for the religious right to continue claiming the title of state religion in the Obama administration. And Mr. Obama is clearly complying with their request, in his choice of Rick Warren as the invoker of blessing on the new administration. Obama clearly believes, along with millions of other evangelical Americans, that the religious right is merely another—and another justifiable—manifestation of the evangelical values of the mainstream.

Who finds this appalling? Though much of the media coverage of the reaction to the Warren selection focuses on the strong reaction in the gay community (and that reaction deserves notice, since no other group of citizens is singled out for hatred in the unique way gays are singled out by the religious right), many other Americans find the choice of Rick Warren for this symbolic role sickening, as well.

Many of us have long since grown weary of the posturing of the religious right—of its empty claims to be the only acceptable incarnation of religious values, and most of all, of its lies. Many of us have come to believe that the time for debating the claims of the religious right—for sitting around the table and making nice with each other, while only one voice is ever permitted to be heard—is over. It is time to repudiate the claims of this movement that misrepresents the gospel and betrays core American values.

Many of us saw the election of Mr. Obama in this light—as a sign that the nation could move on, wake up from its long nightmare, if you will, and dispense with placating the religious right, which has, after all, played a decisive role in getting our nation into the mess it now finds itself in economically, culturally, and in every other sense imaginable. Many of us saw Obama’s election as the dawning not just of a new political era, but of a new religious one as well.

We saw it as the opening to a new consensus beyond the hegemonic claims of the religious right, in which Christians of other religious and political viewpoints might once again have a voice in shaping culture and affecting the political sphere; in which members of the Jewish community not allied with the religious right (and that contingent has been powerful for some time now) might once again speak out of the depths of prophetic faith; in which Muslim Americans might be heard and not demonized and distorted. And in which people of no faith at all or people antithetical to faith, but strongly committed to the core values of our society, might play a vital role.

The selection of Rick Warren signals to us that this is not going to happen. It tells us—all of us, a sizeable group of us—who see the role of religion differently and read the bible differently that we do not truly belong. Rather, it confirms the message we have now been given for lo these many years now: there is one God, and the religious right are His unique spokespersons. There is one religion in this nation with the soul of a church—one civil religion—and the religious right sits in the seat of honor in that religion’s conclaves.

What I think those who now call for conciliation overlook, to the peril of the nation, is that there are issues of values, of human rights, where compromise is impossible. It is obscene to speak of any human being as only partly human, or only partly entitled to human rights. Or as entitled to rights down the road, when we have formed a consensus to view that human being as fully human.

For some of us, these debates are over. It is time not to debate, not to sit around the table being lectured by Rick Warren. It is time to move on. It is time to decide, as a nation, where we stand about the human rights of gay Americans. For those of us who are people of faith, it is time, many of us think, to admit that the theological and political claims of the religious right distort the gospel and falsify religion—that the religious right is neither religious nor right.

It is, in other words, 1860 all over again. Let a majority of Christians in the United States believe, if they will, that the bible justifies slavery. Let those Christians shout that anyone opposing them not only challenges longstanding Christian tradition, but is suppressing their right to their own views.

At some point—and this is what we saw in 1860 vis-à-vis slavery—the nation has to make up its mind about how the bible will be read in the public sphere, about whether this or that reading of the bible impedes or promotes democracy, and move forward. That moment is at hand for us now, when it comes to questions of religion and gay rights.

And because Mr. Obama is asking us to defer the moment once again, to continue a debate that has long since finished for many of us, his administration will begin with an iron boot clamped onto one of the legs it most needs to stand on, if it truly wishes to move forward with its platform of hope.