Wednesday, December 24, 2008

What if John McCain had been elected president?

Before we throw Barack Obama under the bus for giving a prominent role to a conservative pastor, let’s imagine the reaction if things were reversed.

By Chris Crain

What if John McCain had been elected president? I know the idea is a bit of a throwback, considering the shellacking the Arizona septuagenarian got from the Illinois senator with the funny name. But just imagine for a minute.

Conservatives would be gleeful, Sarah Palin would be on cable news 24-7 (actually, that happened anyway), and President-elect McCain would be planning his inauguration. Then imagine, in a conciliatory gesture toward Obama supporters, McCain selects Gene Robinson, the openly gay Episcopal bishop, to give the invocation. In a nod to his own supporters, he chooses the evangelical leader Rick Warren to give the benediction.

We know what the response would be. The Republican right would be furious: What a kick in the teeth from McCain to choose a minister whose elevation was an indictment of their core religious beliefs, and who advocates the destruction of traditional marriage and the murder of millions of aborted fetuses!

Gay rights groups and bloggers, still reeling from Obama’s unexpected defeat, would be cheered by McCain’s unexpected and courageous attempt at reconciliation. Press releases from progressives would defend McCain against charges of betrayal, chastising conservatives for their intolerance and their insistence on dividing, not unifying. Besides, they would point out, the benediction will come from Rick Warren, who opposes gay marriage and supported Proposition 8 in California.

You see where I’m going here? We know that, happily for us, history unfolded in opposite fashion, and Barack Obama chose Rick Warren to give his inaugural invocation, and civil rights hero Joseph Lowery, who supports full marriage equality, to say the benediction.

Yet the response from many gay bloggers and rights groups has been every bit as reactionary and intolerant as the Republican right would have been toward Robinson. Aren’t we better than that?

Can’t we see how any meaningful attempt by President-elect Obama to unify the country must include McCain voters, including the 31 million who bought Warren’s best-seller “The Purpose-Driven Life,” and the additional millions who agree with gay marriage opposition?

Can’t we keep our eyes on the prize? This inauguration will install the most pro-gay president, by far, in the history of this country. If reaching out to conservatives buys Obama some additional political capital, that is to our great benefit.

Aren’t we the ones who have argued till we are blue in the face for the separation of church and state? It’s always been a core part of our movement to oppose any attempt by one set of Americans to demand their religious views receive official favor, or that those with contrary views be excluded.

And yet here we are, basically demanding the president-elect remove one minister from his role in a public ceremony because of his religious beliefs and replace him with one whose beliefs we find more acceptable. Are we proving we are no better, when we have access to power, than our conservative opponents?

The misuse of public ceremonies to show official favor for one group over another runs afoul of the First Amendment’s “establishment clause,” which prohibits the establishment of an official religion, or from sending signals that some faith groups or views are preferred over others by government.

That’s why the courts won’t permit sectarian prayers in public schools, and why we no longer have manger scenes at Christmas time in front of city hall. That’s also why Roy Moore, the virulently anti-gay chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was booted from office after he insisted on a Ten Commandments monument in the courthouse rotunda.

To be fair, it is partly Obama and Warren’s fault that church and state are entangled here. The president-elect’s decision to include inaugural prayers at all, while noncontroversial and in keeping with tradition, opened the door to this debate. What’s more, marriage as an institution is a conflation of church and state, “vesting power” in ministers to officiate at a religious ceremony with civil legal effect.

Warren makes matters worse by basing his opposition to gay marriage and support for Proposition 8 on his own religious beliefs about homosexuality. If you think about it, exclusionary marriage laws are also contrary to the First Amendment, since the primary intent -- repeated by politicians and pastors alike – is to preserve “the sanctity of marriage.” The government ought not be choosing which faith group’s views about marriage will be enshrined in the law or excluded from public ceremonies.

Those of us so exorcised by the idea of Warren saying a two-minute prayer would be much better served by arguing for church-state separation, in marriage laws and public ceremonies, than by demanding the president-elect show favor to friendlier religious beliefs.

Chris Crain is former editor of the Washington Blade and five other gay publications and now edits He can be reached via his blog at


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