Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Major Liberal Groups Avoid Rapping Obama on Warren Pick


Unifying the country requires reaching out to those with whom you disagree.

That’s what a couple of top Jewish leaders are saying about Barack Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his swearing-in next month.

Others in the community, however, say the president-elect’s choice is a disappointing kickoff to his administration.

Critics of the religious right have lauded Warren, the pastor at the Southern California Saddleback Church, for focusing on issues such as poverty, AIDS and the environment. But he is also strongly opposed to abortion and gay marriage, and in a recent interview compared same-sex marriage to incest and pedophilia.

Warren opposed Proposition 8 in California, which overturned a court decision legalizing gay marriage in his home state and implemented a ban on such unions in its constitution.

“I don’t think there should be a litmus test that that they have to agree on every issue,” said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, of Obama and Warren. “People have a right to be upset” by some of Warren’s views, but “that doesn’t disqualify him from being the president’s choice.”

“The president-elect has said he will reach out and broaden the tent,” said Foxman, but “broadening the tent comes with a price.”

The Union for Reform Judaism, which disagrees with Warren on abortion rights and gay marriage, but hosted him as a speaker at its biennial convention in 2007, declined to comment for this article. Other organizations with liberal domestic views also chose to stay out of the controversy, including the National Council of Jewish Women and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Marc Stern, the acting co-executive director of the American Jewish Congress, said he had “mixed feelings” about the choice.

“It’s keeping with the president-elect’s determination in reaching people with which he disagrees, which is positive,” said Stern, who added that Warren’s incest and pedophilia analogies were troubling.

“I appreciate the big-tent mentality, but I’m disgusted that the president-elect thinks that it’s acceptable to compare gay people to pedophiles,” said Dan Furmansky, a Silver Spring, Md., political consultant who spent five years as the executive director of Equality Maryland, the statewide LGBT civil rights organization, before leaving the group last week.

Furmansky said the pedophilia comparison, which portrays gays and lesbians as “violent, predatory individuals,” is akin to the “blood libel” that Jews “put the blood of Christian children in matzah.”

“That’s the man Obama chose,” Furmansky said. “It’s hurtful and painful.”

Furmansky said his hope is that “the legislative process compensates for this idiocy,” and that the president-elect can help pass a federal non-discrimination law and expand hate crimes protections to LGBT citizens. He also wants to see an end to the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

“It’s a new face on the old politics,” said Jane Hunter of Jews on First, a organization that moblilizes the Jewish community against the Christian right, of Obama’s selection of Warren.

Noting that Warren had brought Obama to his church even though many of his congregants disagreed with the Democrat, Hunter said it appeared that the president-elect was returning a favor.

“That leaves the rest of us dismayed,” she said, because the “larger issues are getting brushed aside.”

Warren hosted a highly publicized presidential forum at his church in August involving Obama and his GOP opponent, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Hunter said that while Warren has been involved in combating such problems as poverty and HIV/AIDS, and may not be as extreme in his beliefs as evangelical preachers such as Rod Parsley and James Dobson, he still shares many similar positions. She pointed out that the church Web site states that someone “unwilling to repent of their homosexual lifestyle” cannot become a member of Warren’s church, although they are allowed to attend services there. (Warren has a similar rule against unmarried heterosexual couples living together joining the church.)

“Pastor Warren may have a media-friendly” image, she said, but “he still believes the same package of political positions.”

Hunter compared taking away the marriage rights that had been granted to gay and lesbian couples in California to putting Japanese Americans in labor camps during World War II.

Stern, though, questioned whether Warren’s support of Proposition 8 should be a reason to reject his or any other religious leader’s appearance at the inauguration. It’s one thing for Warren to compare gay marriage to incest, he said, and another to say anyone who does not accept the case for same-sex marriage should not be allowed to speak at a Democratic, public event.

Such a position, Stern said, would eliminate many who take a “traditional, religious view” of the issue — that includes Catholic priests, African-American Baptists and Orthodox Jews.

Obama himself said during the campaign that he believed marriage is between a man and a woman, although he opposed Proposition 8.

“We’re not going to agree on every single issue, but what we have to do is be able to create an atmosphere where we can disagree without being disagreeable, and then focus on those things that we hold in common,” Obama told reporters last week.

He also noted that the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a civil rights activist and religious leader, would be offering the benediction at the inauguration.

The Warren pick won’t mean much to faith-oriented voters, though, if Obama doesn’t show openness to their issues.

The choice is “consistent with the unprecedented and impressive outreach effort to the religious community,” said Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s director of public policy. But “once he’s in a position to govern,” he said, “actual policies” on issues such as the faith-based initiative will be what matters.

Warren’s controversial comments haven’t been limited to gays and lesbians.

According to an article on The New Republic Web site posted originally in August, Warren said “yes” at an Aspen panel discussion when asked by a Jewish woman whether she would “burn in hell” and received “audible gasps.”

Co-panelist Alan Wolfe, the author of the article and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College, said he was “impressed” that Warren stayed true to his convictions despite knowing the audience reaction he would receive.

Stern said the “notion that there’s only salvation for those who believe in Jesus is an old one in Christian theology and certainly makes Jews nervous.” But “without gainsaying the damage done by that point of view,” Stern said such a belief “isn’t’ a clear and present danger” to Jews in the United States.

“It’s an observable fact: In the United States, that’s just not true,” he said.

In addition, Foxman noted that the Rev. Billy Graham, who delivered the invocation at eight inaugurations, has since been heard on the Nixon White House tapes expressing anti-Semitic views about Jewish control of the media.

Recommended from JTA