Today, at perhaps the most important national ceremony in years, Barack Obama has picked as the nation’s spiritual guide a homophobic, anti-abortion evangelical who doesn’t believe in evolution. As a pro-gay, pro-choice atheist who believes that doubting evolution is akin to doubting we have hands, I should be outraged.
Or should I?
Most Americans share Rick Warren’s belief that Creation is a better explanation for human life than Darwinism. And, as we saw in November, even in California most share his conviction that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry. Warren’s book, “The Purpose Driven Life,” is the bestselling nonfiction hardback of all time because it has helped literally millions of Americans find meaning in their lives.
Warren’s followers and admirers are my countrymen, and while we shouldn’t follow Sarah Palin in referring to theirs as the “real” or “pro-America” parts of the country, neither should we commit the same sin in reverse, denying they have a stake in this country’s future. Many of “these” people even voted for our own lord and savior, Barack Obama.
A politician isn’t heroic because he rams through as much of his agenda as he can before his party gets voted out of office. Rather, he deserves honor and respect only when he can get his people behind him for truly national progress, rather than a divisive swing of the partisan pendulum.
That is the true genius of Barack Obama. He understands that scoring points and racking up favors may be the way to run a business, but it’s not the way to lead a nation.
Many are offended by Warren’s selection; some in the gay community feel it is a painful slap in the face. Understandably, they are reeling from their defeat on California’s Proposition 8, and Rick Warren is the last person they want to see celebrated as a national icon.
But in our society, we can’t deny that homophobia exists, and we can’t censor it because we find it unpalatable — that’s a recipe for resentment, backlash and, ultimately, a divisive politics lacking any measurable progress. Instead, we must let everyone have their voice and trust that the better argument will win the day.
Ours is the better argument. Humans are evolved, and homosexuals deserve rights — we shouldn’t compromise those beliefs for any reason. But that doesn’t mean other beliefs don’t deserve to be heard, or that the people who hold them should be barred from speaking.
There are two ways to think about national unity and the political alliances that must be forged in a diverse, pluralistic democracy like our own. The first is what many presidents have done in the past: espouse the sentiments shared by the largest number of Americans and hope the rest won’t make a fuss. This politically correct option would involve choosing the preacher likely to offend the fewest Americans. But there is no preacher who will offend no one — anyone who mentions God, for example, will exclude me, and many others.
The second way of thinking about national unity, which Barack Obama is encouraging today, is a kind of unity that isn’t based on a sugar-coated assumption that everyone believes the same things and feels the same way, but rather one that acknowledges our differences and challenges us to respect and admire each other in spite of them. We must celebrate the true diversity of our nation and of human experience, even if that means accepting an anti-science homophobe.
This is exactly what Barack Obama is challenging us to do. Why else would he put Rick Warren and Gene Robinson — the first openly gay Episcopal bishop — on the same stage? President-elect Obama is saying to us all that unity isn’t about agreeing on matters of policy, or censoring opposing viewpoints in the hope that they’ll just go away. It’s about something more fundamental to our politics than that — it’s about respecting your opponent, no matter how wrong you think he is. Let’s take Obama’s first lesson as president to heart.
Sam Bagg is a senior in Silliman College.