Obama has decided that Gene Robinson will deliver the opening prayer at his inauguration, and the gay community is ecstatic at the idea of an openly gay pastor at such a public event. Of course, all this excitement comes after the keenly voiced anger over Rick Warren.
In all this hoopla about religion, we seem to have forgotten a key issue: the separation of church and state. In October 2008, Reverend Moody wrote worriedly about how “Religion Threatens ’08 Presidency” More recently, Richard Kim, also writing in The Nation, asks, “...why not make the case for secularism, the separation of church and state and the purity of the constitutional oath?”
Kim’s article indicates that he understands that this will be a losing battle. We’ve long since given up the pretense that ours is a country defined by the separation of church and state, a fact driven home to me recently as I waited in a courtroom and looked up at the words “In God We Trust,” in giant silver metal letters on the wall. The atheist in me wondered: so, with God looking over things, who needs Justice?
Over the last decade, the gay community has tried to paint itself as holier-than-thou, every pun intended, in relation to straights and much of that has, of course, to do with the gay marriage issue. The logic goes like this: We deserve to be married so that we can access all those benefits that straight people get, and so we’re going to prove that we’re more committed, we make better parents and...we’re way more religious than anyone else.
But really, we ought to start worrying about the the fact that we now take religion in the public sphere so much for granted. Some among us have been pointing this out for years. The redoubtable Bill Dobbs, one of the few gay activists who has been consistent on marriage and religion, was quoted in Gay City Newswhen Joseph Lowery was still the only perceived antidote to Warren: “The toxic effects of religiosity are what are at issue. I don’t think that having Joseph Lowery is any better at bringing about unity. Let’s remember what preachers do. Their perspectives are based on faith and are not based in rationality or science.” Those words still ring true today, as sections of the gay community jump in joy at the choice of Bishop Robinson.
A lot of LGBT folk who are religious have gone the through the pain of being rejected by the institutions that they grew up revering. So I understand why so many might want the public to understand and appreciate their relationship to religion. But I don’t think that most religious LGBT people necessarily think that religion in the public sphere is a good thing. I do think that most of them are committed to the idea of the separation of church and state; it’s one thing to want to be part of a church, quite another to insist that religious principles should govern public life. But right now, the gay community’s public dismay at Warren, without any accompanying criticism of the fact that pastors are invited to deliver prayers in the first place, makes it seems like we’re also wedded to the same principles as the religious right.
There’s a parallel to be drawn between this recent issue of religion and the topic of gay marriage post-Proposition 8. Most of us, including myself, are against Prop 8. How could you not be? But our collective anger at that homophobic measure doesn’t necessarily mean an automatic and wholesale embrace of gay marriage as the defining cause of the “community,” such as it is. A lot of us still don’t think marriage should be the goal of the “movement,” or that married people deserve special benefits just because they’re married. But it’s difficult to make any critique of marriage, gay or straight, in an environment where marriage is seen as the only and most natural form of “rights.”
I fear that something similar will happen with religion and the gay community, following the fracas over Rick Warren and the exultation over Gene Robinson. Neither choice is an occasion for anger or excitement. But the overlay of both emotions onto a significant public occasion means that we’re going to forget that neither man should be praying for and with the nation in the first place.