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Warren On? Party Off.

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Not that he was planning to attend, but Barack Obama should know that my sister's inauguration night party -- the one for which she was preparing Obama Punch -- has been canceled. The notice went out over the weekend, by e-mail and word of mouth, that Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation had simply ruined the party. Warren is anti-gay, and my sister, not to put too fine a point on it, is not. She's gay.

She is -- or was -- a committed Obama supporter. On the weekend before the presidential election, my sister and my mother drove from the Boston area, where they both live, to Obama's New Hampshire headquarters in Manchester. There my mother made 76 phone calls for Obama, which is not bad for someone who is 96, and gives you an idea of the level of commitment to Obama in certain precincts of my family.

I should say right off that my mother feels less strongly about Warren than my sister does. But I should add immediately that my sister feels very strongly, indeed. She's been in a relationship with another woman, the quite wonderful Nancy, for 19 years, and she resents the fact that Warren has likened same-sex marriage to incest, pederasty and polygamy.

"I'm opposed to redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage," Warren told Beliefnet.com's Steve Waldman. "I'm opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage."

Waldman asked, "Do you think those are equivalent to gays getting married?"

"Oh, I do," said Warren.

There you have the thinking of the man Obama has chosen above all other religious figures to represent him in this most solemn moment. He likens my sister's relationship -- three children, five grandchildren, so loving as to be envied and so conventional as to be boring -- to incest or polygamy.

The conventional thing to say is that Obama has a preacher problem -- first the volcanic Jeremiah Wright and now the transparently anti-gay Warren. But the real problem has nothing to do with ministers and everything to do with Obama's inability or unwillingness to be a moral leader. Sooner or later, he just might have to stand for something.

This was apparent to me almost a year ago when I reported that Obama's church, the Trinity United Church of Christ, had given a major award to Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam. The award was presented in Wright's name and featured in a cover story in the church's magazine, Trumpet. When I asked the Obama campaign about this, I was told that Obama himself did not agree with Farrakhan. What a relief!

And what a joke. I never for a moment thought Obama viewed Farrakhan any differently from the way I do. But I also thought that as a U.S. senator, as a presidential candidate or even as a mere citizen, he had an obligation to denounce the award -- maybe quit the church. Do something! He did nothing.

Now we have a repeat of that episode. This time it is not Obama's preacher who has decided to honor a bigot, it is Obama himself. And, once again, we get the same sort of rationalizations. Obama says he does not agree with Warren about all things. Obama says he himself is not anti-gay and, in fact, although he does not support same-sex marriage (as opposed to civil unions), he has been a stalwart champion of gay causes. Therefore, it seems to follow, he can honor an anti-gay activist.

I can understand Obama's desire to embrace constituencies that have rejected him. Evangelicals are in that category and Warren is an important evangelical leader with whom, Obama said, "we're not going to agree on every single issue." He went on to say, "We can disagree without being disagreeable and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans." Sounds nice.

But what we do not "hold in common" is the dehumanization of homosexuals. What we do not hold in common is the belief that gays are perverts who have chosen their sexual orientation on some sort of whim. What we do not hold in common is the exaltation of ignorance that has led and will lead to discrimination and violence.

Finally, what we do not hold in common is the categorization of a civil rights issue -- the rights of gays to be treated equally -- as some sort of cranky cultural difference. For that we need moral leadership, which, on this occasion, Obama has failed to provide. For some people, that's nothing to celebrate.

The party's off.

cohenr@washpost.com

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