Rabbi Arthur Waskow : Obama Has a Deaf Ear to Religion

Evangelical maverick Rev. Richard Cizik speaks at Mosque during annual Interfaith Gandhi Walk.

‘I do think it was a good idea to reach out to evangelicals, but there was a far better possible person — better religiously, symbolically, politically.’
By Rabbi Arthur Waskow
/ The Rag Blog / December 21, 2008

When it comes to religion, Barack Obama is deaf in one ear. There was considerable accuracy to the pre-election criticism that somehow he was for many years deaf to the wildness of some of Reverend Jeremiah’s Wright’s sermons — though from the other ear, perhaps he noticed that some of those Prophetic jeremiads rang with truth. Now the choice of Reverend Rick Warren to invoke the presence of God at the inauguration seems to be another symptom of a deaf ear -– perhaps an over-corrective, trying to wipe out the memories of Jeremiah Wright?

I know what the arguments are for inviting Rev. Warren:

• For some, it’s simple enough: he’s right, God thinks gay male and maybe lesbian sex are as sinful as pederasty and bestiality.

• Some others think it’s Obama as clever Chicago politico: offer a symbolic crumb to the right wing when your “real” politics will be pro-gay.

• Still others think it’s smarmy clever politics: Obama’s version of Clinton’s Sister Souljah moment, deliberately kicking part of his political base in the knee so as to prove his independence to the nation at large.

• Others think it’s wise long-range politics: slowly bring the right-wing evangelicals into a dialogue, showing you think they’re human beings and thereby winning them over to support Obama on economic issues and maybe even foreign policy.

• And anyway, some “secular” liberals and progressives think, religion is mere symbolism. Money and troops, that’s real. How many paratroop divisions can either Rev. Wright or Rev. Warren field in Afghanistan, how many jobs can they save in Detroit? So it doesn’t matter what Obama does with any religious figures; it’s all moonbeams anyway.

I don’t agree with any of those arguments. I do think it was a good idea to reach out to evangelicals, but there was a far better possible person — better religiously, symbolically, politically.

Reverend Richard Cizik did an act that Jews called tshuvah. Literally, “turning” himself toward the God Who is always evolving. That is the most profoundly religious act a person can undertake, and it often means losing prestige and power. Cizik has put himself on the line for years, insisting that a true evangelical Christian must take action to heal God’s creation from the wounds humans are inflicting on it. Then last week he said that he supported full legal rights for gay and lesbian couples, and that he could feel a growing in himself toward spiritually affirming such unions as marriages.

For this he was forced to resign after 28 years as vice-president and chief lobbyist of the National Association of Evangelicals.

Honoring people who despite institutional pressure move toward God’s justice, God’s compassion, God’s shalom – now that’s an act of religious celebration. (Does Obama remember that before Dr. King became a saint he was a troublemaker?) Holding up as public exemplar someone who out of deep conviction moves toward affirming your political allies, instead of honoring those who kick your allies in the teeth – that’s a sign of political smarts.

In either mode, Obama should have asked Rev. Cizik to invoke the God we all need – the God who Wrestles with us and asks us to Wrestle all night and every morning with our beliefs about the universe.

And one other thing he might have done. After a year of fleeing mosques as if they indeed were the homes of the devil – instead of having the courage of General Colin Powell to say, “Those rumors that I’m a Muslim are lies – but so what if I were?” — he could have broadened the knowledge and deepened the spiritual experience of American society by inviting a Muslim — say Imam Yahya Hendi or Imam Hamza Yusuf — to join in public prayer on Inauguration Day.

With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace…

The Rag Blog

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2 Responses to Rabbi Arthur Waskow : Obama Has a Deaf Ear to Religion

  1. cloudy says:

    I would really be interested in more about Reverend Cizic, maybe a follow up article from Rabbi Waskow and even an interview with Cizik himself, if that’s possible.

    As far as Warren is concerned, several points are central to me in all this are:

    (1) It is important to focus on the FULL RANGE of totally unacceptable (as distinct from ‘mere’ disagreement) representations and actions of Rev Warren, including apparently supporting a subordinate role of women few national GOPers would openly espouse, and some other noxious things about other religions. Gay rights should not take second place to other rights, but feminism and a minimum of religious ecumenicalism should be at the forefront together with gay rights. This is also smarter coalition politics

    (2) The broader issue here is not just religion and the Obama Administration (although that is an apt focus), or Obama and gay rights, but the overall pattern of the “fierce” urgency of insisting that Obama live up fully to his progressive promise in terms of both policy and vision. A recent column at TPM Cafe by Todd Gitlin focusing on a handful of Obama’s best appointments, some of which are indeed very good, was pitiful in that this seems to be all progressives can say about it. We MUST NOT allow Pres Obama to be another Pres Clinton, who, though presiding over prosperity and (relative) peace, betrayed the left and strengthened the RW. We should also not lose sight of the many issues, like Star Wars, where even what Obama has advocated is unacceptable to a consensus of progressives. But the unified and ONGOING voice of progressives in the upcoming era, UNLIKE THE 90s, is what is at stake; remember that, unless Warren says something at least perceived to be egregious during his short invocation, that invocation and the choice of who filled it will be yellowy
    ‘yesterday’s news’, the stuff of trivia questions, w/in one week of Obama’s inauguration.

  2. Mariann says:

    Maybe it’s good that Obama is “deaf to religion”. I would like an openly atheist or at least agnostic President, rather than any more that kiss the shiny buttocks of every holy joker that comes along. Politicians believe they MUST kowtow to some “mainstream” religious stance to be elected, and, given the mass media’s hysteria over any hint of non-orthodoxy, they’re probably right.

    Here’s a question, kind of theoretical: what would the response(s) have been if, instead of Rick Warren, Obama had asked a Muslim cleric to pray at his inauguration? That wouldn’t have been any more acceptable to queer Americans — maybe even worse!! — but would have sent various “signals” to other populations as well. Or, if he’d invited a rabbi, would that have been an insult to Palestinian liberation?

    My preference would be to have NO bloody praying at all in ANY government ceremony, and I thought that Madelyn Murray O’Hair (of blessed memory) had taken care of that issue for us long ago………

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