RAY SUAREZ: Through his best-selling books and softer-edged Evangelism, Pastor Rick Warren of California’s Saddleback Church has become one of America’s most influential Christian leaders.
But his selection by the president-elect to give the invocation at January’s inauguration has been met with heavy criticism from many Obama supporters because of Warren’s conservative views on homosexuality and abortion. Warren has equated gay marriage with incest and abortion with the Holocaust.
Mr. Obama was asked today about why he made the choice.
U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: I would note that, a couple of years ago, I was invited to Rick Warren’s church to speak, despite his awareness that I held views that were entirely contrary to his when it came to gay and lesbian rights, when it came to issues like abortion.
Nevertheless, I had an opportunity to speak. And that dialogue, I think, is part of what my campaign’s been all about, that we’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is to be able to create an atmosphere when we — where we can disagree without being disagreeable.
RAY SUAREZ: Mr. Obama also pointed out that the Rev. Joseph Lowery will give a benediction on January 20th. The civil rights leader holds views in contrast to Warren’s on many issues, including gay marriage.
Warren has been widely praised for his church’s work on AIDS in Africa and social justice issues. He’s now among that rarefied strata of religious leaders with whom presidents and aspiring presidents consult.
RICK WARREN, Saddleback Church: What’s been your greatest moral failure?
RAY SUAREZ: Outside of the three debates, a Warren-hosted forum last August in California was one of only a handful of occasions where Barack Obama and John McCain shared a stage, that day to discuss the role of faith and morality in their lives and work.
So what does the Rick Warren choice say about President-elect Obama? And what message, if any, is he trying to send?
For that, I’m joined by Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based think-tank, and Harry Knox, director of the religion and faith program at the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.
Reaction among advocacy groups
RAY SUAREZ: And Harry Knox, today the leaders of national gay civil rights and progressive groups said things like a blow to the community, a slap in the face, the worst possible pick. Why this reaction?
HARRY KNOX, Human Rights Campaign: Well, we were profoundly disappointed in the president-elect's pick because he chose someone who is a divisive person, who has attacked our community and attacked our families, families like mine, and called us every horrible thing he can think of.
And that's the person that the president-elect has chosen to represent all of religious thought in America on this most important symbolic day, this very first day of his administration.
For us, it was a real slap in the face that the person who associated people like me and my partner, Mike, my husband, Mike, with bestiality and polygamy and pedophilia, of all things, would be the person that the president-elect would choose.
RAY SUAREZ: Does this choice represent all of American religious thought, Mr. Cromartie?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE, Ethics and Public Policy Center: Oh, no, of course it doesn't. But what it does say is that -- what we need to know about Rick Warren is that he has become sort of the next Billy Graham in our country, sort of America's pastor.
In fact, I think if Billy Graham's health was better now, he would probably be the person doing this. But Rick Warren has become that person.
RAY SUAREZ: But it didn't sound like Harry Knox is too happy about the idea that this might be America's pastor.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: No, that's right. And I would just remind Harry this is not a cabinet appointment. This is an invocation, a short prayer that will be a very nonsectarian prayer.
Rick Warren, by the way, has an amazingly great reputation with ministers of compassion around the world. He's an incredibly magnanimous man. And I think that President-elect Obama picked him because he likes him personally.
What the pick reveals about Obama
RAY SUAREZ: What does it tell you about Obama that he picked someone who doesn't agree with him, as he noted today, on a lot of the big third-rail issues in American life, in American cultural battles?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, it tells you that President-elect Obama is a man who respects Rick Warren because Rick Warren is himself not a culture warrior.
And it also tells us that maybe President-elect Obama is making an appeal to one segment of the population that voted 98 percent for him or 99 percent, and that's African-Americans.
I would remind you that African-Americans voted, in California, 74 percent of African-American women voted for Proposition 8, over 70 percent of African-American men voted for Proposition 8. It may well be that President-elect Obama is -- is having some solidarity with the people who voted that way.
RAY SUAREZ: How do you respond to that idea?
HARRY KNOX: Well...
RAY SUAREZ: Because Rick Warren was an outspoken supporter of Prop 8 in California.
HARRY KNOX: He certainly was. And God help us if he's America's pastor. He has, in fact -- Michael, I disagree -- been a general in the culture wars in that state and around the country, around a woman's right to choose and also around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.
This is a person who has fundamentally disrespected people like me on every occasion that he had opportunity. He has, in fact, leveraged homophobia to get ahead in his career. And this is like putting an anti-Semite at the first part of the program and then saying, "Well, we're going to add a rabbi at the end. Won't all the Jews be happy?"
This is the worst possible choice the president-elect could have made. This is a divisive choice, not one that brings America together.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: If that's true, Ray, I might say the president-elect supports traditional marriage. So we might want to say, is the president-elect divisive, our new president divisive? He supports traditional marriage himself.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, wouldn't Barack Obama oppose -- given his record, given what he said during the campaign, oppose, as Rick Warren did, efforts to legalize gay marriage in a state?
HARRY KNOX: What the president-elect did was to oppose Prop 8 as an institutionalization in the constitution of the state of California of discrimination. And that's what the president-elect made a real decision and a real statement about during the election.
We certainly don't think that he's a supporter of marriage equality today, but he has been a supporter of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a fully transgender-inclusive version of that, and the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Protection Act.
What I hope is that, if he's really serious about a dialogue and bringing Rick Warren into a dialogue, that he'll ask Rick to take the lead on helping us pass those two pieces of very important protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in our country.
Criticism from all sides?
RAY SUAREZ: Michael Cromartie, is it likely -- not everybody has been heard from -- that some evangelicals are not exactly doing handsprings over the Rick Warren appointment to give the invocation because he's been out of favor with them from time to time?
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Well, that's right. And I think one of the interesting things we're going to see in the next few days is actually Rick Warren is going to have critics from his right for identifying and, in fact, in agreeing to do this, to give the invocation.
And, again, I would remind you: This is just an invocation. It's not a cabinet appointment. Rick Warren has a reputation in this town of being a person who talks across party labels and party lines. He has friendships with Democrats and Republicans.
He has a good reputation of being a person who leads dialogues. And that's why, for instance, he was the one pastor that conducted the Saddleback Forum. So I think this is the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one.
RAY SUAREZ: Can you be putting too much importance on the symbolism rather than what it was that -- what it is that this new president will do in office?
HARRY KNOX: This is a conversation among friends with us and the president-elect. We, though, take very seriously our friendship, and good friends don't insult each other unremarked.
And we have said to the president-elect today in very strong language, the strongest we can think of and be respectful of the office, you have really slapped us.
And we want you to think about that and think very hard about what your actions will be going forward, because this very symbolic early decision has sent the exact wrong message about a big table -- an American table at which everyone is invited to sit, because we are not invited to sit at Rick Warren's table, believe me.
Someone who can reach across?
RAY SUAREZ: What about the president-elect's own point today that Rick Warren is a man who's opened his door to him, sometimes at some cost to himself, and this is someone who he's trying to show that he can reach across, as well, that he as president can reach across, as well?
HARRY KNOX: Well, we have been trying to reach out as a community to Rick Warren for a long, long time and got so frustrated that many people have now protested in front of his church.
I heard today that Rick said, well, the last time they came, those people, those others, you know, came and protested in front of my church, I went out and served them coffee and donuts.
But we didn't want coffee and donuts, Ray. We wanted a real conversation. We want to really be engaged with someone that is given this kind of a stature in our country. But we're not invited to do that, and we have to demand that right.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: You know, Ray, Harry is trying to make Rick Warren out to be this sort of right-wing bigot. And it just -- it won't wash. It won't work. The man's got an amazingly good reputation in numerous communities around this country and around the world, as a person who opens his own wallet. He gives away 90 percent of his own income.
He's a compassionate man. He is in dialogue with people of all kinds of faiths. He's gotten a lot of criticism for the people he talks to and the people he's in dialogue with.
So this attempt to brand him as some sort of right-wing fanatic and nut, it just won't work.
RAY SUAREZ: But he is someone, as Harry Knox has pointed out, who he feels rejects his way of life.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Oh, yes, he's someone who has strong convictions about his own religious tradition and what that teaches about human sexuality. You bet he does.
HARRY KNOX: And he sure doesn't need to have a national pulpit for that, because prayer matters -- prayer matters very much. I've heard you say a couple of times tonight, Michael, you know, that prayer doesn't matter. Prayer matters very much, and he doesn't think my prayers even ascend above the ceiling.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Prayer does matter, yes. That's for sure.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, with that bit of agreement, let me thank both of you gentlemen for being here.
MICHAEL CROMARTIE: Thank you, Ray.
HARRY KNOX: Thank you.