Sometimes a little public outrage goes a long way. On Wednesday, Rick Warren, the California mega-church pastor who delivered the invocation at President Obama’s inauguration, ended his uncomfortable silence on anti-gay legislation in Uganda by condemning (via YouTube) a proposed measure that would make homosexuality punishable by death. (Warren’s Twitter feed suggests he’d been a bit more active behind the scenes). That same day, citing pressure from Ugandan pastors—Warren is huge there—politicians temporarily dropped the proposal. Ugandan President Yoweri Musevini’s spokesman issued a statement blaming outside activists for derailing the legislation:
“The Anti-Homosexual Bill 2009, yet to be tabled on the floor of parliament, has attracted unnecessary hullabaloo,” said the spokesman. “Some Western countries, with their characteristic condescending attitude, are already threatening to cut aid if that bill is passed into law.” (h/t Episcopal Cafe)
The battle’s not over just yet—the bill is being revised, and may be up for a vote shortly—but the episode is revealing for what is says about Warren, who notably balked on condemning the bill when he was first asked about it in late November.
Obama was roundly criticized by the progressive mainstream when he selected Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration last January. But nearly a year later, if the pastor’s name is a more familiar one to many Americans, is that really such a bad thing? As Time‘s Amy Sullivan argued in November, Warren’s most frustrating trait is his burning desire to be liked. He often trips over himself trying to explain controversial statements—on gay marriage, for instance, or evolution. He doesn’t talk like a Bible-thumping caricature and he tries not to look like one either. As a result, he’s remarkably receptive to scrutiny.
Warren deserves scant praise for speaking out against potential mass murder in Uganda when he had no excuse not to, but his reversal shows the power of engaging with, rather than shunning, controversial figures. Obama, in elevating Warren’s status, introduced him to a new audience of critics, and us to a pastor whose interests align with our own more than we might think.