Waiting to Exhale: An Advocate Struggles with the Debate Over Warren


Most of the public debate on Obama’s selection of Rick Warren for the inauguration has centered on his vocal opposition to gay rights and to some extent abortion, his “good works” on poverty and global AIDS, and Obama’s desire to embrace those of different viewpoints in an effort to “disagree without being disagreeable.”

Even those most publicly vocal about their anger at the selection have tried to balance their criticism.  Writing in the Washington Post, Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, cited Warren’s role as “a general in the campaign to pass California’s Proposition 8, which dissolved the legal marriage rights of loving, committed same-sex couples.”  At the same time he also nodded to Warren’s alter-identity by stating that he “has a sound message on poverty.”   On CNN’s After Party, Democratic consultant Donna Brazile disagreed with Warren’s positions on gay rights and abortion, but noted his work on poverty and global AIDS.

These two ends of the Warren spectrum have been cited by many commentators as evidence of Obama making good on campaign promises to find middle ground and move to meet the challenges we all face.  In Religion Dispatches, Anthony Pinn writes:

I personally reject Rick Warren’s theological orientation [and] conservative theological stances that demean, dehumanize, and limit life options.  [But] I understood what Obama’s call for common ground would entail long before I cast my vote for him.  “Getting to Yes,” as some might name it, would involve a surrender of some ground (in this case theologically-grounded viewpoints and stances) for the sake of larger, productive work on rather significant issues.

And some, like Colbert King, also writing in the Washington Post, tell us all to just chill out.  

In all of recorded American history, no invocation preacher (not even Billy Graham)…has ever gone on to determine the course of U.S. policy, foreign or domestic.  Exhale, y’all.

I have been waiting to exhale, and have not yet found the place inside me to do so, despite the eloquent argument made by my colleague Scott Swenson on Reality Check that this is a long-term process of social change to which Obama is fully committed and that we are well on the road to realizing the changes toward which we have been working.

I wish I were this confident.  It is not the rhetorical promises about which I am worried.  It is the place where the legal rubber hits the road as we go forward about which I am less sure.  And it is the tendency in much of this debate, as Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes, to treat the “categorization of a civil rights issue — the rights of gays to be treated equally – [as] some sort of cranky cultural difference." 

I worry that many people have heard the “headlines” of Warren’s involvement on poverty and global AIDS so often they have failed to read the fine print. We treat the domestic and international sides of Warren almost as if they existed in alternative universes.  They do not.  His stands on women’s rights, gay rights, evidence-based prevention of HIV…these are the same domestically and internationally, though perhaps even more insidious internationally because the consequences of this type of thinking ingrained in our international policies often are hidden to us by the very distance between the US and countries recieving our aid, and the profound lack of power of those affected to speak out.

I worry that we use words like “disagreement and compromise” so frequently without specificity that we will fail to examine what tradeoffs we are talking about and whose interests we are trading off for what purpose.  Maybe it is just me: An Obama supporter from the beginning, I still felt much more comfortable when the nice but vague "The Change We Need" campaign slogan gave way to speeches and commercials that got down to brass tacks proposals about environment, economy, and health care.  Abraham is asked by God to make the unfathomable sacrifice of his son, but at least he knew what the sacrifice was and what the terms were on which he was being asked to make it. Abraham was an agent in the decision. 

I fear that legitimizing Warren and others with an extreme social conservative agenda makes it more likely that the kinds of compromises we have been making for the past 15 years—and which often are more in the hands of Congress and the states than the President to decide–will only become more rather than less pronounced.  

It is unlikely, for example, that there will be much controversy in working with Warren and his followers on issues like global warming.  I doubt the same is true of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

And contrary to King’s assertion, for example, Warren is indeed already heavily involved in making policy ranging from domestic policy (Prop 8) to international policy (global AIDS, trafficking).

Warren and other religious leaders helped ensure passage of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), legislation that over the past 5 years has brought HIV treatment to between 1.5 million and 2 million people suffering from AIDS-related illnesses.  This is to be applauded.

But it is also true that Warren is one of the most powerful supporters of PEPFAR’S ideologically driven abstinence-only prevention policies.  In sub-Saharan Africa, where unprotected sex is responsible for 80 percent of new HIV infections, we’ve been funding programs that simply do not work.  With an estimated 5 to 6 new infections for every person put on treatment, sound prevention policies are fundamental to ending the AIDS epidemic.  But we constantly sacrificed these to compromise with the religious right.

Also during the first 5 years of PEPFAR, policies supported by Warren and other members of the social conservative far right led to the denial of funding to groups working with men who have sex with men and with sex workers.  Our policies on human trafficking reflect similar ideological approaches to a highly complex problem.  The result is to make highly marginalized groups even further marginalized.  When you raise these issues, you are labeled as divisive.


During the recent reauthorization of PEPFAR, which approved spending of $48 billion dollars on global AIDS through 2013, Warren lobbied heavily for maintaining restrictions on prevention that had been rejected by both government agencies and the public health community, as has been described in several recent articles on Reality Check.  To satisfy social conservatives, the bill purposefully omits mention of the links between HIV prevention and family planning.  Under pressure from the far right, guidance was written forbidding use of PEPFAR funding for the purchase of contraceptives for HIV positive women who wish to avoid a future pregnancy.  The law also contains a conscience clause allowing discrimination in the delivery of prevention, treatment, and care based on ideological objections to the individuals or groups in need.  

All of these policies were dressed up as “compromises” made to pass PEPFAR.  The problem is that the actual compromise effort never included representatives of any of the groups whose interests were on the chopping block.  So while we are treating people on one hand, we are also leaving others at greater risk of HIV infection in that same period, slowing progress toward ending the HIV epidemic.  From where I sit, these policies are neither morally or ethically sound nor financially responsible.  But they came out of the “compromises and common ground” in a Democratic Congress that primarily satisfied the ideological agenda of the far right.

And this is what worries me.  Is it a compromise when someone gives away your rights and you are not even there to object?  Why is it that the most fundamental issues of women’s health and basic human rights are always labeled as "cranky cultural differences" and as "too divisive?"  Why is that the place we are always forced to compromise?  The culture war is invariably invoked when it comes to women’s rights
and health, abstinence-only versus comprehensive sexual health, and a
host of other issues having to do with reproduction and sexuality. 
Never mind the facts and the overwhelming scientific evidence.  At some point, we need to draw a line, as I imagine many of my fellow citizens in the gay community may also feel.  When we do, we are "divisive."  Why is it divisive to stand up for your beliefs when others are doing the very same thing?

I am not against reaching out to or “hearing” the other side.  In fact, as someone who has worked for over 20 years on reproductive health, violence and HIV and AIDS, I’ve tried to find common ground with and negotiate with and compromise with many players.  And I am not advocating for disruptive action at the invocation.

But I am very clear on one thing: I have a fundamental disagreement with the religious right (as I have come to know it over the past 15 years) on core issues regarding safer sex, reproductive and sexual health, women’s rights, contraception, abortion, and a host of other issues.  Though I am an active participant in my own faith community, I don’t believe there is “one way” determined by God.  I believe there is the right way for each person, given their circumstances, their religious beliefs, their value system and their moral standards.  I believe all people have both rights and responsibilities when it comes to sex and sexuality, but it is not for government or religion to decide how responsible consenting adults can or should live, when and whether they choose to have consensual sex, or when and whether they choose to have children.  I believe women have the right to make decisions about their bodies.  I believe basic reproductive and sexual health care is primary health care.  I believe that people should have the right to marry whomever they desire.  I believe public health and human rights objectives should drive health and development policy.

From what I have heard to date, Warren and his colleagues in the institutional evangelical and Catholic Church believe that it’s “god’s way or the stairway to hell.”

So when we talk about “getting to yes” and “compromise” in such a vague way on such a large scale, it worries me.  Historically, that means giving away women’s rights.  I have seen this movie repeatedly.  We have compromised with the social conservatives for years—indeed they have in many ways controlled the debate by using misleading statements and by flouting evidence to steadily reduce access to sexual and reproductive health care here and abroad.

Where does it stop?

I sincerely and truly hope we can find common ground on policies that seek to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies, but I also would maintain that we will never eliminate the need for access to safe abortion.  We must provide education, information, and training to adolescents and encourage them to delay sexual activity–I have a 12-year old and a 9-year old and believe me they are being taught these values.  But they still have to be equipped for the day they do have sex, whether or not they are married.  We can decide to hold our own individual beliefs on—and choose as individuals whether or not to join a faith community that denies–the rights of gays to marry, but for me it is morally indefensible for religious leaders to use the law to prevent gays from having the same legal rights in partnership as others.

The generational change about which Scott speaks on gay rights came on reproductive health came long ago.  The vast majority of the American population supports family planning, comprehensive sexuality education and access to safe abortion.  Laws and policies that infringe on these rights do not represent “compromise” but rather capitulation to a small minority of voters by politicians who have not acted on their own moral authority to stand up and oppose the erosion of these rights.

So I wonder, at the inauguration, could we not have had a voice whose message could propel the Administration into its first few months by unapologetically claiming as moral and ethical those very areas that have been contested for so long only through one lens?  

Scott writes that “Obama demonstrates that progressive ideas on gay issues, sex ed, contraception and abortion are moral choices.  He invites Warren to join him, even while disagreeing on gay rights and abortion, to find new common ground.”

I wish, for one day, that this could have been part of a seamless and unequivocal message to Americans:  “These are moral choices and we embrace them as a critical component of the “significant issues” on which we are going to be working together from today forward.”  Having made this statement unapologetically, having established this framework and this platform—we all are making moral choices as we understand them, but we have a communal responsibility to public health and human rights–we could have moved forward.  We—all Americans as responsible and vested parties in the future of our country—could have moved forward with the new President and the new Congress into the next four years of critical work to address pressing issues, and worked through negotiation and compromise with all the stakeholders at the table.

If we had started on that footing, I would be a lot less worried.  I pray I have no reason for concern.

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  • invalid-0

    Jodi, thank you for your thoughtful and clear statement of the issues – moral, ethical, political – and for bringing forward so clearly the fears and concerns of so many of us. As a member of a large network of women from the countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific, I have to say this kind of ‘compromise’ is oh so painfully familiar. We are so used to having our rights sold out time and again by our own best ‘friends’ in the name of compromise, political realities, strategy, negotiation and what not. Each time it happens, we realize it is only when WE are powerful, and when we are able to use our political and moral weight to be at the table that we are able to ensure that such decisions don’t get taken. Sadly, relying on the goodness of our ‘friends’ doesn’t seem to do the trick – they sell us short all too often.

    Why is it always women’s and LGBTI rights that get compromised? Would anyone have called it a legitimate ‘compromise’ if an immigrant-basher, or a racist, or of one of Bush’s anti-environmental anti-science groupies had been invited to an important spot in the inauguration?

  • invalid-0

    Thank you for an eloquent description of the context in which we must consider Rick Warren’s words. Too often, reports in the media paint this ‘controversy’ in the narrowest terms possible.

    Sadly, the transition team’s talking points on Warren refer to this as a disagreement between Mr. Warren and the LGBT community – as if the issues in play have nothing to do with the rest of us. And some allies, with the best of intentions, ask us to rely on ‘magical thinking’ to wish this problem away. As you say, we’ve seen this movie before, and its the plot that is redundant – the rights of LGBTIQ people are the first to be conceded in the name of ‘compromise,’ and reproductive rights follow in short order.

    That said, I cannot resist the urge to gently chide you on this point: you write, “So I wonder, at the inauguration, could we not have had a voice whose message could propel the Administration into its first few months by unapologetically claiming as moral and ethical those very areas that have been contested for so long only through one lens?”

    Yes, we could have – we could have had an advocate whose track record was one of always, unequivocally leading the fight for reproductive choice and women’s rights, who proudly celebrated support from the LGBT community when others were ducking for cover, and who understands the religious right wing for who they truly are.

    Her name is Hillary Clinton.

  • invalid-0

    Jodi, your analysis is, as usual, intelligent, thoughtful and clear. In Canada we have elected a Conservative government and many socially conservative policies have been put in place over the last two years. We have managed somehow to keep church and state somewhat separate in Canadian politics, but I fear that the lines will blur as time passes. It gives me pause to realize that the social conservatives still hold a firm place in US policies and that even now, with a progressive leader, there is no magic bullet.