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Rick Warren's inaugural invocation gets mixed reviews

Critics of his stance on California's gay marriage measure welcome his inclusive language. But others question his use of a Christian prayer.

January 21, 2009|Duke Helfand

In his inaugural invocation Tuesday, evangelical Pastor Rick Warren delivered a message of unity that pleased some of his most vocal critics in the gay and lesbian community.

Yet even as the founder of Orange County's Saddleback Church appeared to mollify those who have fought with him over gay marriage, he raised other eyebrows by invoking Jesus' name and concluding with the Lord's Prayer -- both distinctly Christian practices on a day that has typically been characterized by more general expressions of "civil religion."

"I don't think he acquitted himself very well," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Columbia University who considers Warren a friend. "To lead the nation in saying the Lord's Prayer, which is so particularly Christian, was a mistake."

The choice of Warren to deliver the invocation generated controversy from the start -- triggering protests by civil rights groups angered by his support of Proposition 8, the California measure that banned same-sex marriage in the state.

When Warren rose to speak Tuesday, a murmur rumbled through parts of the crowd, according to several people who attended the inauguration. Still, Warren offered soothing words in his invocation that many of his most ardent foes interpreted as a religious balm.

"Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or blood but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all," he said. "When we fail to treat our fellow human beings and all the Earth with the respect that they deserve, forgive us."

Neil Giuliano, president of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, said he hoped that Warren's remarks represented the beginning of a constructive dialogue with evangelical Christians.

"We want to have that conversation about the future with regard to gay and lesbian Americans in communities of faith," Giuliano said. "Other views and other opinions are now welcome at the table, and therein lies our hope that we can move to full equality."

In California on Tuesday, some gay-rights supporters continued their protests over Warren's inaugural appearance.

Several people watching on a jumbo screen outside San Francisco City Hall booed when Warren approached the lectern.

His description of God as "loving to everyone you have made" didn't stop one woman from shouting loudly: "Not our first choice! Not our first choice!" And it didn't stop the widespread jeering at Warren's enthusiastic pronunciation of the first daughters' names.

One prominent Los Angeles civil rights leader who traveled to Washington for the inauguration said that Warren delivered a positive message about inclusiveness.

But the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles, said Warren still needs to reach out to the gay and lesbian communities. Lee said he asked Warren to debate Proposition 8 before the inauguration but hadn't heard back from the pastor.

"Because he made such strong public statements about [Proposition 8], I think he has an obligation to at least engage in a dialogue with someone who is clergy who thinks differently than he does about the issue of marriage equality," Lee said.

"I think that's where a genuine [commitment] will be demonstrated."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

Times staff writer Maria L. La Ganga in San Francisco contributed to this report.

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