Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Talking Points: Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Pastor Rick Warren

December 24th, 2008 by Ajuan Mance
Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell
My opposition to Warren is specific. I believe a man who opposed same-sex marriage with the vehemence and public organizing of Warren should not offer the prayer at the inauguration. The inauguration belongs to all Americans. It is a moment of national unity. It is a symbolic rendering of our peaceful, democratic transitions of leadership.  It is an assertion of our collective identity rising above our partisan disagreements. It is not a time for division.
As I have envisioned my own joy about Lizzy [Elizabeth Alexander] taking the podium I have also allowed myself to feel the horror of LGBT communities the moment Warren asks us to bow our heads in prayer. It is absolutely equivalent to a southern segregationist who actively organized for anti-miscegenation laws invoking a blessing over my Thanksgiving dinner.  I don’t think so!  Obama is allowing Warren to  invoke a holy blessing on the second class citizenship of my fellow Americans. I don’t have words to express my disgust.

Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University on The Kitchen Table Blog (Thursday, December 18, 2008)


While Warren may be giving the invocation at Obama’s inauguration, I am much more interested in the selections of Rev. Joseph Lowery to give the benediction and Black feminist poet Elizabeth Alexander to write and deliver the inaugural poem. Sadly enough though, the inclusion of these distinguished African American participants seems to have escaped the notice of both the mainstream media and certain key activist communities.

Poets rarely make headlines, even for events such as the coming inauguration, and so in some ways I understand why Obama’s selection of Alexander has drawn so little attention. On the other hand, I cannot help but believe that racism and media bias have at least a little bit to do with the fact that such an important civil rights activist as Rev. Lowery has been completely upstaged by a white evangelical minister whose historical legacy has yet to be determined.

The fact is that Rev. Lowery is a  veteran African American activist who has fought for the civil rights of all, across all races, genders, and sexual orientations. Even white gay activists (who appear to be none to enthusiastic about Black folks) have hailed him for his willingness to speak truth to power in support of gay marriage rights. His record on this issue is as progressive and Warren’s is prehistoric. Activists are and have always been more focused on protesting their opponents than on celebrating their allies; but if ever there was a time for left-leaning political activists, cultural workers, and other agents of social change to celebrate their allies then now is that moment.

For what it’s worth, I can think of many reasons why Pastor Warren may well be a strategically strong and important choice to offer the Obama invocation.  I do however, believe that having Warren read a prayer at the inauguration is a way of conveying to the white people who feel hatred and fear towards Obama (including most of the 30% of gay voters who did not vote for him) that just because he does not agree with their ideas does not mean that he and his administration will not work with them on the issues on which they do agree.

The selection of Pastor Rick Warren has filled lgbt folks across the country with rage and anxiety and fear, while the fact that a Black feminist poet (who is already inspiring race, anxiety, and fear among observers on the right) will be delivering the inaugural poem, the fact that a pro-gay and anti-racist minister is giving the benediction, and the fact that this is the first inauguration in history that has included an lgbt group in the official parade lineup have barely made waves.

Maybe I’m still on rising the high of election night, or maybe I am just an inveterate optimist. The Warren selection is in many ways a troubling part of the inauguration exercises, but I still feel like I have a lot to celebrate.

…and I just can’t wait to hear what poet Elizabeth Alexander will say with all the nation listening.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

Posted in African Americans, Black History, Current Events, Elizabeth Alexander, race, Rick Warren

2 Responses

  1. Sean

    I’m so glad to hear you give voice to the way I feel about the Rick Warren thing. While I agree with Harris-Lacewell, I also can’t see getting totally up in arms about his giving the invocation. I may be somewhat naive, but after working so hard to get Obama elected, I just want the man to succeed! Symbolism is important of course, but I don’t yet see Warren’s role as an outright betrayal to the LGBT community. If anything, selecting Warren betrays the truth that Obama is a deft politician at outflanking both his opposition and his supporters.

  2. Ajuan Mance

    Hi Sean!
    So great to hear from you on this issue. Like you, I simply haven’t experienced Warren’s invitation as a betrayal of LGBT interests…at least no more that Obama’s selection of Biden (of “clean and articulate fame”) as his vice president.

    And with these words, you have finally given me the precise language to express why, on one level, I find this selection (of Warren) almost inspiring: “If anything, selecting Warren betrays the truth that Obama is a deft politician at outflanking both his opposition and his supporters.”