Atlanta pastor Louie Giglio was disinvited from delivering the invocation at President Obama’s second inauguration ceremony after ThinkProgress unearthed a 20-year-old sermon in which he called homosexuality a sin, endorses ex-gay therapy, and utters the usual hyperbole about homosexuality “undermining the whole order of our society.” This isn’t the first time: similar outrage was directed at Obama’s choice of Rick Warren, who believes the same things, though Warren wasn’t stricken from the lineup in 2008.
Evangelicals are predictably up in arms about the whole thing, making all kinds of dire proclamations about how people who hold orthodox Christian belief are now automatically disqualified from participating in public events. Al Mohler is calling it “moral McCarthyism.” On Twitter, Joe Carter quipped, “Those who oppose Giglio’s giving a prayer at the inaugural b/c of his sermon on homosexuality would really hate the guy he’d be praying to.”
I have a mix of feelings about this. First of all, as Andrew Sullivan says, it’s lamely negligent of the White House not to do some basic googling themselves, especially after the same damn thing happened last time. Why is it so hard to pick an Episcopal priest or some other clergy member who comes from an LGBT-supportive denomination? No one would have ever thought anything about it, and the Obama team would have avoided annoying both gay rights supporters and religious conservatives who now feel persecuted by the disinvitation.
The second reaction is broader, and somewhat sympathetic to Mohler’s complaint about the perpetual inquest into decades-old statements and beliefs. I don’t think Obama could in good conscience have kept Giglio on the lineup, as I’ll explain in a moment, but, taken more generally, I agree that this is a big cultural problem. We have the same going on at the moment with Chuck Hagel and his comment about the “Jewish lobby” (as opposed to the “Israel lobby,” which is the Washington-approved non-anti-Semitic way to say it) and about a former ambassador being “aggressively gay” (15 years ago). While there’s nothing wrong with investigating a public official’s views, I think the constant, perpetual inquest into every statement every quasi-public person has ever made, followed by rounds of (often) manufactured outrage, is childish, silly and oppressive. There is a punitive, Puritanical character to it, a hubristic attitude that perfect behavior and perfect ideology is possible, and anyone who has ever expressed anything divergent from the politically correct line is disqualified.
This case, however, is one where it matters. As I suggested above, it’s pure carelessness on the part of the White House that this happened in the first place. But since it happened, kicking Giglio off the program is basically the only option. The theocons are right that basically half of the country agrees with them about homosexuality, and that Giglio’s views shouldn’t be taboo. But that’s precisely why it’s so important that the president, who is on the other side of a culture war that splits the country pretty much perfectly in half, not appear to be compromising his principles. Gay rights are the leading social issue of the moment, and are still in a very tentative position. While public opinion seems to be tipping decisively, this is all very new: states are only beginning to legalize gay marriage, DADT and DOMA have just ended, etc. Progress in religious communities is even slower and harder won. Whether he likes it or not, Obama is the most powerful figure on the “side” of gay rights, and his statements, positions and relations carry immense weight. A president who just endorsed gay marriage less than 6 months ago probably shouldn’t hire a preacher who appears to still believe crazy, apocalyptic things about a still very much embattled American minority.
Giglio’s views are not extreme relative to public opinion, but they are extreme relative to the Obama and the side of the culture war that he is on. There may be a day when pastors with Giglio’s views are the minority and don’t have any real influence over the lives of people living amid a tentative cultural shift. Maybe when that happens, it won’t be necessary to be very careful of the kind of views invited onto a presidential stage. If it were some other issue this guy disagreed with Obama about, something less sensitive and important, then I’d say liberals should get over it. But right now this issue matters enormously, because there is still that other half of the country out there.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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