Is Rick Warren Beyond The Pale?

[ Posted Monday, December 29th, 2008 – 17:16 UTC ]

Is Rick Warren, pastor of a California mega-church and author of The Purpose Driven Life considered unacceptable in American society at large? Was Obama's invitation to Warren to speak at his inauguration akin to, in today's world, inviting a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, or a blatant misogynist to speak? To put it another way, is Rick Warren beyond the pale?

Before I attempt to answer, I have to insert a little linguistic history here. Because the use of the word "pale" in that last question is in no way related to any sort of description of color. "Pale" in this instance means "fence." The same root word gives us "palisade." Pale has been used this way since Middle English was spoken, to describe a fence of stakes erected to keep the barbarians out. "Beyond the castle walls" would be a direct equivalent. The concept was used more recently in Ireland, where the area around Dublin (which the English held) was known simply as "The Pale," which kept the "wyld Irysh" out.

Inside the pale, in other words, is civilization and polite society. Outside the pale is barbarism and savagery. So what, exactly is still allowed in the American pale of thought? That is the question.

Pretty much everything which is currently considered "'outside the pale" in American thought was, at one time, considered acceptible mainstream thought. Some things which were previously considered outside the pale have now become acceptible and are debated in polite society. And some issues skirt the lines, moving in and out of acceptability in a more tenuous fashion.

Racism, for instance, was once completely acceptible in American culture. Read any newspaper from the early nineteenth century to see such socially-acceptible racism. Great works of art (such as Huckleberry Finn) were created at the time. And the debate still rages over whether it should be banned from school libraries due to the racist language, or whether the overall themes in the novel redeem it.

What is acceptible on television is another barometer. Minstrel shows were once perfectly acceptible in film, radio, and television. Richard Pryor was called a "nigger" in a comedy sketch as late as the 1970s on Saturday Night Live (it's a hilarious sketch, actually, although filled with racist terms for both blacks and whites). Such would not be considered acceptible today, and would be rejected by network censors.

Anti-Semitism has a similar long history of moving slowly from being acceptible thought to being despised almost universally. So has misogyny.

But the most obvious example in my own lifetime has been homosexuality. Once seen as so taboo as to not be mentioned, gay people were first caricatured and then gradually became more and more acceptible as characters on both television and film. Today, gay love dares to speak its name, and has become so commonplace that Lisa Simpson (while watching a gay parade chanting "We're here! We're queer! Get used to it!") answers back: "We are used to it. You do this every year."

But being "used to it" is not the same as allowing gay marriage, at least as far as 52% of California voters were concerned. So the idea of homosexuality is both within and without the pale, although moving steadily inward. Nowhere is this more evident than the shift in the entire debate. It wasn't that long ago that the battlefield for gays was getting civil unions accepted. Now, civil unions are seen as acceptible even by many who were horrified at the concept only a few years ago. The battle has shifted to gay marriage. Civil unions are now considered inside the pale, even for many Republicans, while gay marriage is still outside the pale for many.

Which brings us to Rick Warren. And Barack Obama. The question many are attempting to answer now is whether Rick Warren is outside the pale, permanently, for his attitudes and remarks on homosexuality. "Permanently" is an interesting concept here. Can someone "repent" or "become rehabilitated" from some views, or are they forever damned for saying some things? Liberals do indeed tolerate some former offenders of this type. Black politicians who have uttered anti-Jewish rhetoric, for instance. Or ex-Klansman Senator Richard Byrd, who was one of the strongest anti-war voices in the Senate in the buildup to Iraq. On the right, the "Roe" in Roe v. Wade later became an anti-abortion spokeswoman, and was welcomed into the fold.

Now, the cases aren't equivalent, because to be considered within the pale, any offender has to repent, see the error of their ways, and denounce their previous words or actions. Warren has done none of these things, and I am not defending him here. The question I'd like to ask is: what gets you a permanent exile from the pale? If you believe that someone who says something racist or anti-gay (or anti-whatever, for that matter) can be reasoned with, and educated out of their ignorance, then you believe that just about anyone can have a change of heart. If you think the person is simply beyond hope, then any effort to change them would be a waste of time for both of you.

Which brings us to Barack Obama. Obama made a political choice by his invitation to Warren, and it remains to be seen what the outcome of that choice will be. It may be a momentary distraction, and not long remembered. It may become a major headache for him. It may even make it harder for Obama to advance any of the gay-rights agenda when he actually takes office, lest he be seen as beholden to a vocal minority. At this point, it's impossible to tell what the outcome will truly be. Perhaps Warren will be booed at the swearing-in ceremony. Perhaps he won't. Gay activists may either advance their cause, or harm their cause by such a protest -- again, it's a political decision they will have to make.

Obama attempted to explain his choice, saying (in essence) that Warren had taken a lot of heat from his most fervent supporters for inviting Obama to his church, and that Obama expected to take some heat from some of his supporters for returning the invitation to Warren. He expressed it in "reaching out" language that he has been using throughout the campaign.

But for some gay-rights supporters, this was not enough. Their argument, stripped of its emotion, is that Warren's remarks were so odious and his actions in getting Proposition 8 passed in California so unforgivable that he is simply unacceptable. Beyond the pale.

Their battle, in other words, is not with Obama or Warren, but to redefine the pale to exclude bigoted comments about gay marriage forever. That is an admirable goal in some ways, but it will be an uphill fight. Because like it or not, there are a lot of Americans who agree with Warren. Just like there were Americans who agreed with Hitler before World War II. I am not equating Warren or the anti-gay-marriage position to Nazism here, just pointing out that nowadays former Nazis aren't exactly given many opportunities to speak to the nation (the way Warren will do on January 20). Because Nazism is seen as completely and utterly beyond the pale. As are (increasingly) sexism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny.

But gay marriage isn't there yet. For various reasons, millions of Americans not only agree with Warren, but consider the concept of gay marriage itself outside their pale. Anyone who ever says nice things about gay marriage would be considered permanently irredeemable by many Republicans, for instance.

While I understand the anger from the gay-rights community over the Warren issue, I myself am waiting to see some solid results from Obama before judging him. If, for instance, Obama got rid of the "Don't ask, don't tell" (DADT) policy and allowed gays to serve openly in the military, would that put the Warren invitation in a different light? For that matter, which would be seen as worse: Obama lifting DADT after allowing Warren to speak, or Bill Clinton's approving DADT in the first place? If Congress turns over the Defense Of Marriage Act (DOMA) and Obama signs it into law, would that be considered mitigating? Obama has said personally that he is not for gay marriage (while supporting civil unions and other gay rights), so if he signed a DOMA repeal -- against his own beliefs -- would that be enough to assuage the hurt feelings over Warren?

Now, I don't know if Obama is going to do either of those two things. I'm just saying that for me (legislative) acts speak louder than (Warren's) words. If this is some grand scheme to inoculate Obama with religious Americans before actually doing something to advance gay rights, then it may be seen in a different light in the near future. If Obama doesn't come through, then the Warren fiasco truly will be indicative of Obama's intentions.

But I think it is too early to tell, personally. I noticed that a day or two after the Warren invitation was announced, a "trial balloon" was floated in Washington -- some Democrats were pushing for William White to be named as the new Secretary of the Navy. White is gay, and the post is a civilian one, meaning he would not fall under DADT. Such a move would obviously be seen as a precursor to lifting DADT altogether. But as the outrage grew over the Warren issue, White's supporters disappeared from the news. The story disappeared, and rumors started that Obama was considering an old friend in Texas for the Navy Secretary job.

Politicians always walk a thin line when it comes to pleasing their supporters. They cannot be seen as being "captive" of any "special interest," while at the same time trying to advance the agenda their supporters agree with. So Obama has painted himself into a corner, in a way. If he comes out strongly for legislation which furthers gay rights early in his administration, he is going to have to give the appearance of not "caving in" to their demands. Ironically, gay rights supporters may be making it harder for Obama to actually bring some change by their pressure. Or maybe not. Maybe Warren's invitation will be seen by the middle-of-the-road suburbanites as extending a hand to one side, while offering some gay-rights legislation to the other side. It is impossible to tell how it will all play out at this point.

The day before Barack Obama was elected, I wrote:

As an aside, I firmly believe that in his first 100 days in office (should he win tomorrow), President Obama is going to intentionally pick a fight with the hard left. He's going to seriously annoy the progressive blogosphere wing of the party with some action he either takes or doesn't take. This, I should add, is going to annoy me personally... but I bet it will only improve his general approval with America-at-large.

So we'll have to see. Will gay-rights supporters truly move the pale so it excludes anti-gay-marriage comments of the ilk Warren is known for? Will there be a backlash effect which helps Obama politically in his poll numbers? While it is easier to look at the short-term effects of this protest, I wonder about the bigger picture. If Obama truly redefines the legal pale, so that (for instance) gay spouses can file federal income taxes as "married," or can serve in the military openly, will the Warren fiasco actually wind up improving gay rights in this country?

For me, Rick Warren is beyond the pale. But I do believe that he could be convinced to change his beliefs. And I also have seen the boundary line of the pale move significantly in my lifetime when it comes to gay rights. So I believe it can be redefined so that no politician in the future would ever consider extending an invitation to anyone who thinks the way Warren does. But I don't believe that is going to happen by January 20. When Warren speaks at the Inauguration, I will be interested to see the crowd's reaction. But I will be much more interested in what Obama does to advance gay rights, once he's in office.


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post


-- Chris Weigant


One Comment on “Is Rick Warren Beyond The Pale?”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    You've outlined the context, but it also needs perspective: Warren is going to say about three hundred words. Those words will be forgotten after Obama's speech, and are fewer in number than the first bill he signs.

    There are some other factors to consider. Obama's choice of Warren for the invocation puts the kibosh on the 'secret Muslim' smear; it exorcises the ghost of Jeremiah Wright; and it lets him appeal to evangelicals, further eroding the GOP base. And just imagine how Warren's 2012 sermons will be affected by a closer relationship to the Obama White House.

    Taking a long-term view, Warren may turn out to be a brilliant opening strategy, but even more important than the partisan effect of this pick is the healing effect it can have on relations with the evangelical movement. To all those Warren-haters out there, I have to ask: do you REALLY want a schism in American society? Do you REALLY want the religious-conservative movement to draw in its head and legs? Do you WANT that separation? Because it's exactly the wrong strategy for gay rights (and Darwin, and rational sex education, etc) in the long run. In the 1960s Israelis used to think that Hasids and other conservative branches of Judaism were doomed to fade because they lived separate from mainstream society. But today they are stronger than ever, warping the political fabric of Israel and pressing for expansion of settlements. And it is precisely that insularity -- from science, society, and the larger culture -- that makes them so rabid and powerful today.

    Warren is one tiny step to defusing that potentiality in America.

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