In the ideal world, there'd be no religious leader of any sort at the inauguration; we'd keep those people at a safe distance from the state. I don't think, personally, that the primal creative force of the world has anything at all to do with nations and governments. And even if I'm wrong, we'd be better off behaving as if this were true.
Obama and his team could have chosen anyone, who wouldn't agree to pray? The Dalai Lama. An activist nun. A schoolkid from DC. Joel Osteen, for heaven's sake, who at least doesn't run around condemning people, so focused is he on prosperity as a sign of divine love. Maybe the nation could use him just now?
Obama and his team made a mistake; this was an unvetted choice in the McCain-Palin tradition, and that's a painful thing to have to acknowledge. Did they know Warren said Jews go to hell, or that gay marriage, pedophilia and incest were equivalent acts? I'd bet not. This could have been an occasion to unify the country, or at least the prayer part could have been a non-event, but now, for many of us, the inauguration is actually ABOUT Rick Warren, which is awful. I want to be celebrating the extraordinary victory of our first African-American president, 146 years out from the Emancipation Proclamation, as well as the election of a literate memoirist, a liberal, and a leader of great promise -- not to mention the end of the last eight miserable years of public life. If the guy had real concern for civic life, he'd step down gracefully and acknowledge it isn't the right time for him to be in this particular spotlight. But doesn't, an dhe won't. If you'd like some evidence of this, and you have a strong stomach, you can see for yourself while he addresses the faithful this week, with enough smiles and smarm to induce the need for a good spike of insulin, or a shot of vodka, whichever is handier.
I actually like the coalition-building idea. We've been stymied in terms of social progress by polarization, and Obama has the right idea to bring people with many different points of view together so that we can move forward. Does this mean that people who deny the civil rights of others should have a favored spot, blessing our next national venture? I said the other day that if Warren were denying the rights of any other minority group, there's no way he'd be up on that podium, but then the poet Alison Hedgecoke, who's Native American, pointed out to me that he could bash Indian rights and that'd be just fine. I think she's right; queers and Indians you can always throw under the bus.
If you can stand to watch that Warren video, you have a higher threshold for nonsense than I do. But I did make it halfway through, and there are two elements of his remarks -- each common in fundamentalist discourse -- that intrigue me.
One concerns the idea of choice. Warren says that we all have the freedom to choose to do God's will or not, and that he himself hasn't always made this choice. The notion that same-sex desire is something you choose is a fascinating view of sexuality, and it's obviously not one most people share. Do you recall CHOOSING what sort of person you'd be attracted to? Warren suggests, as Ted Haggard and Jimmy Swaggart did before him, that we live in a state of undifferentiated wanting, surrounded by pitfalls, and at any moment we could give in. Does he believe it's an act of will to remain heterosexual, does he experience his own desires this way?
The other peculiar thing here concerns the ferocity with which Warren wishes to limit the definition of the word "marriage," as though the word has such meaning and power that to use it broadly or loosely were some tremendous danger, some terrible loss. I am, of course, a person who lives by the word, and I don't have anything like this forceful clinging to definition. (Maybe becauase I'm a poet. Say the trees and sky are married, the cardinal and the feeder are married, me and my blog are engaged, I don't care, that's all a potentially rewarding line of thinking.)
Anyway, there's a wonderful book on this subject called THE SCANDAL OF PLEASURE by Wendy Steiner. It's focused on the culture wars and the Mapplethorpe flap, but it's as relevant as ever. She notes the way, when the photographer's work was on trial,
liberals defended it on purely formal grounds; conservatives attacked it because it meant something, because a photograph represented the REAL. Same with words. For Pastor Rick, marriage is X, goddamn it, always has been, always will. Fundamentalism (one of the greater scourges of the planet at the moment) is a failure to read complexly, an insistence that the values of words are absolute rather than relative. Fundamentalism gives authority to THE book, be it gospel or Koran. Writers (and more thoughtful readers) live in a world in which authorship (read "authority") is shared, distributed, and never absolute.