Obama addresses Warren controversy

OBAMA ADDRESSES WARREN CONTROVERSY…. At a press conference this morning, a reporter asked Barack Obama about the invitation to Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. Obama seemed aware of the controversy, and his answer reflected some forethought. Based on my transcription, here’s his response in its entirety:

“Well, let me start by talking about my own views. I think it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something I have been consistent on and something that I intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.

“What I’ve also said is that it is important for America to come together even though we may have disagreements on certain social issues. And 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 dialog, I think, is a part of what my campaign’s been all about, that we’re never going to agree on every single issue. But what we have to do is create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common as Americans. So Rick Warren has been invited to speak, Dr. Joseph Lowery — who has deeply contrasting views to Rick Warren on a whole host of issues — is also speaking.

“During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented — and that how it should be, because that’s what America’s about, that’s a part of the magic of this country is that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated. So, that’s the spirit in which we have put together what I think will be a terrific inauguration, and that’s hopefully going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration.”

This certainly sounds reasonable. Obama wants to bring people together and focus on what unites Americans. He supports gay rights, but he’s willing to engage prominent figures like Rick Warren, even though they disagree. Indeed, Warren reached out to him in 2006, and now Obama, as a sign of respect, is doing the same thing in return. It’s a symbolic gesture about inclusiveness and the importance of diversity of thought.

I get it. In fact, it’s a noble and admirable goal. But Warren is still the wrong choice for the inauguration.

Consider it this way: imagine the Obama White House were to host an inter-faith dialog on the great moral issues of the day. President Obama and his team want a lively discussion with a variety of competing ideas, and invite a wide variety of pastors, including Warren, to participate. There may be some who would say this is wrong — that Warren’s conservative believes should necessarily disqualify him from being invited to the White House. If, under those circumstances, Obama responded by saying, “There are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented — and that how it should be, because that’s what America’s about,” I would agree without hesitation.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. There’s only going to be one invocation at Obama’s inauguration, and it will be delivered be a conservative who strongly disagrees with Obama on gay rights, reproductive rights, foreign policy, and modern science. I’m a huge fan of diversity of thought, and if Obama and Warren want to have a spirited dialog, I’d no doubt find it fascinating. But this is obviously different.

Indeed, in Obama’s response this morning, he seemed to suggest he was returning a favor — Warren invited him to speak at his church, so Obama is inviting him to speak at his inauguration. The problem, of course, is that the two are in no way comparable.

I’m afraid Obama’s decision, at its core, is ironic. In the name of tolerance, he’s elevating someone who’s intolerant. In the name of acceptance, he’s extending an imprimatur to someone who refuses to accept those unlike himself.

I’m reluctant to make too big a deal about this. As I argued this morning, it’s a symbolic gesture, which will likely have no substantive effect whatsoever. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a mistake.

Update: Greg Sargent has the video of Obama’s comments this morning.

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.