There has been much gnashing of teeth, and not only in the gay community, over the selection of the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the premier prayer at tomorrow's Inauguration. Understandably so -after all, the televangelist had famously likened same-sex marriage to incest, polygamy, and “an older guy marrying a child.”
It would be a mistake, though, to read the choice as signaling that the Obama administration will leave gays out in the cold. The decision to ask Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop and the center of a religious firestorm, to deliver the invocation at the opening ceremony is smart politics. What's more important, the fact that Barack Obama sought out Robinson during the campaign - asking him “what it's like to be first”; discussing Obama's commitment to gay civil rights as well as to the U.N. Millennium Development Goals for reducing poverty and disease - speaks volumes about the breadth of the president-elect's worldview.
Rest assured: Warren will give a big-tent prayer at tomorrow's ceremony and the brouhaha will quickly fade. What matters far more are the big-ticket federal policies that can make or break people's lives - hate crimes, employment discrimination, the don't ask, don't tell policy - and, on those issues, Obama is on the side of the angels.
As a senator, Obama co-sponsored legislation expanding federal hate crimes to add crimes perpetrated because of sexual orientation and identity. He supports amending the Employment Nondiscrimination Act to include discrimination based on sexual orientation and identity. Like every other major candidate in the 2008 presidential race, he favors civil unions rather than same-sex marriage. While that stance upsets some gay advocates, it's worth remembering that Obama voted “no” on the bill to ban same-sex marriage nationwide; for him, it's an issue that needs to be settled state by state.
In short, when it comes to gay rights, Obama gets it. His positions represent a 180-degree departure from the Bush administration's dogma. The almost-out-the-door president deployed same-sex marriage as a wedge issue during the 2004 presidential campaign; and when he was asked about don't ask, don't tell at a 2007 press conference, he had a two-word response: It's “good policy.”
Bush doesn't know, or doesn't care, that military witch-hunts to root out homosexuals have wrecked thousands of lives. And he's oblivious to the fact that “don't ask, don't tell” has been a poster child for inefficient government. A 2005 report commissioned by Congress concluded that the policy has driven hundreds of highly skilled troops, including many Arabic-language translators, out of the military, costing the taxpayers at least $200 million.
How quickly things can change. On a recent YouTube posting, incoming White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs answered the gays-in-the-military question with a single word. “Thaddeus of Lansing, Mich., asks, 'Is the new administration going to get rid of the “don't ask, don't tell policy?” ' ” said Gibbs, looking directly into the camera. “Thaddeus, you don't hear a politician give a one-word answer much. But it's 'yes.' “
A week before Christmas, at the United Nations, Bush and Co. slapped down the gay community one final time. The United States voted against a U.N. statement affirming that human rights protections include sexual orientation and gender identity and condemning the criminalization of homosexuality. While the statement was simply a symbolic gesture, not a declaration of rights, the symbolism is powerful indeed. With that embarassing vote, the United States parted company with every Western democracy as well as many Latin American and African nations, choosing to ally itself with Russia, China, the Vatican and the Islamic Conference. Without a doubt, this issue will come before the United Nations in the future, and when that happens Susan Rice, Obama's U.N. ambassador-designate, won't be voting the same way.
Last week, the two men of the cloth, Robinson and Warren, joined forces. “President-elect Obama has again demonstrated his genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground,” Warren said, commenting on the selection of Robinson. “I applaud his desire to be the president of every citizen.” Robinson echoed those sentiments. “Frankly, I think it is a magnificent, symbolic statement that Rick Warren and I will be praying for the new president and the nation.”
Maybe - just maybe - this marks the start of a new American political Era of Good Feelings, a post-partisan moment when all - or at least most - of us can get along.
David L. Kirp, James D. Marver professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley, is the author of the upcoming “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools.” This article was originally posted on SF Gate.