President-elect Barack Obama on Thursday defended his decision to invite evangelical pastor Rick Warren. Obama cited the "magic" of a diverse nation.
The choice of Warren, founder of a Southern California megachurch and best-selling author of The Purpose Driven Life, has riled some gay and lesbian advocates, liberal groups and religious leaders because he opposes gay marriage and abortion rights and has expressed what they say are extreme views on the issues.
At a news conference in Chicago, Obama called himself a "fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans" and said he will remain so as president. But he said it's important for people who disagree on social issues to work together.
"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 as Americans," Obama said.
He noted that Joseph Lowery, the dean of the civil rights movement and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will deliver the benediction on Jan. 20.
Lowery, who has spoken out in favor of gay clergy, has "deeply contrasting views to Rick Warren on a whole host of issues," Obama said.
Eddie Glaude, a professor of religion and African-American studies at Princeton University, calls Obama's selection of Warren a "sign of how shrewd he is."
By choosing Warren and Lowery as the religious bookends to the inaugural ceremony, "he's reaching across a wide swath of the American religious community," Glaude says.
"During the course of the entire inaugural festivities, there are going to be a wide range of viewpoints that are presented," said Obama, who appeared with Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at a campaign forum at Warren's Saddleback Church. "And that's how it should be because that's what America is about. That's part of the magic of this country — that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated."
Kristin Cole, a spokeswoman for Warren, said he had no comment.
Kathryn Kolbert of the liberal People for the American Way said it's a "good thing" for Obama to reach out to Warren and others with conservative views on social issues. "But that's different from giving him a seat of honor at one of the most historic events of the century," she said.
Warren has equated abortion to the Holocaust and earlier this year, he angered gay and lesbian groups by supporting California's Proposition 8, a ballot measure banning gay marriage that was approved by voters. "In the aftermath of Prop 8, it feels even more insensitive and politically inappropriate," said Joe Solmonese, head of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group.
Washington, D.C.'s Episcopal Bishop John Bryson Chane, head of Washington National Cathedral, said Warren deserves praise for his efforts on behalf of people with AIDS, the poor in Africa and global warming.
But Chane said Thursday he was "profoundly disappointed" in Obama's decision to make Warren part of the inaugural ceremony.
"I appreciate that there is political advantage in elevating the relatively moderate Mr. Warren above some of his brethren on the religious right," Chane said. But Obama's selection of Warren "confers legitimacy on attitudes that are deeply contrary to the all-inclusive love of God."