Like most people, I was shocked to see that Rick Warren was going to give the opening benediction at Barack Obama's inaugural. Warren is not only a raging homophobe and James Dobson with a slicker style, he's also repaid Obama's previous efforts at outreach by stabbing him in the back.
Lost in all the uproar over Warren's presence is the presence of another preacher at the inaugural: Joseph Lowery, the fellow who will give the closing benediction -- and who, in addition to being a civil-rights hero on the order of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, is also a friend to the GLBT community.
More after the jump.
Joseph Lowery is in his late eighties now, but he is a good deal less hidebound than many persons half his age. He takes the same spirit that allowed him to co-found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and to face down Southern segregationists, and mingles it with the same forbearance that allowed him to press on even when the bigots used libel lawsuits to try to silence and impoverish him.
Yes, impoverish him. From the AJC's brief sidebar bio of him:
In 1960, the Montgomery police commissioner sues him and three other ministers for libel over a New York Times ad that seeks to raise funds for King's defense against felony charges related to his 1956 and 1958 Alabama tax returns. An all-white jury initially orders the ministers to pay $500,000. Lowery's car is seized and sold at public auction. Four years later the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the libel verdict.
Those of you who work in the media have probably pricked up your ears at this. Yes, Lowery was at the center of the New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case:
Before this decision there were nearly US$300 million in libel actions outstanding against news organizations from the Southern states and these had caused many publications to exercise great caution when reporting on civil rights, for fear that they might be held accountable for libel. After the New York Times prevailed in this case, news organizations were free to report the widespread disorder and civil rights infringements. The Times maintained that the case against it was brought to intimidate news organizations and prevent them from reporting illegal actions of public employees in the South as they attempted to continue to support segregation.
Unfortunately, as Gene Lyons points out page nine of his book Fools for Scandal, this ruling makes it very difficult for a public figure to successfully sue for libel in the US -- a fact exploited by the well-organized and well-funded right-wing attack machines set upon Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s. That being said, the ruling paved the way for real progress in civil rights in the South: Without it, it's very likely that the Sovereignty Commissions and their ilk would still have an iron grip on Southern communities.
Pastor Lowery's most recent claims to fame are his publicly chastising George W. Bush on Iraq during his eulogy at Coretta Scott King's funeral, and his publicly chastising various preachers for being fixated on attacking gays when they should be attacking poverty:
The Reverend stated that we "are too easily divided and victimized by ‘weapons of mass distraction.’" Here he told the story of an African-American, Washington, DC-based pastor (who he kept nameless within his speech but who we all know to be the Reverend Willie Wilson of the 8,000-member Union Temple Baptist Church) who led his congregation down a path of division and mis-guidance, preaching and pushing for an amendment against same-sex marriage. The Reverend asked, Why care about something like same-sex marriage when millions of your own children are dying in starvation and poverty within the slums? The Reverend went on to speak on respect for all people and how that played in to Civil and Human Rights as a whole. He said that if you are one who says, "I believe in human rights for all people, except for..." then you really don’t believe in human rights or equality. To believe in equality and human rights is to believe in it for all people. If you don’t, then you are, according to the Reverend, creating an oxymoron and certainly not standing up for equality. He said no matter what race, color, religion, creed, sex, gender OR sexual orientation... we are all deserving of human rights, civil rights and equality. The Reverend said he "sometimes wonders about people who are so homophobic." Quoting Hamlet, he said, "Me thinks you doth protest too much." The audience responded with laughter and applause. He continued, "If a person is a secure in their sexuality, they have no time to waste on sneaking around to see what you are doing."
At the end, during the Question and Answer period, I rose and walked to one of the available microphones not to ask a question, but to thank the Reverend for what his message had meant to me (you can hear this on the audio). As a gay man in American, it meant more than I can describe to just sit and listen to such a great and wise Civil Rights leader like himself affirm me as a human being and affirm me as an American citizen. Thank you, Reverend Lowery.
To this, Reverend Lowery responded: "God didn’t call us to judge. He called us to love... and when you love, you have no time to judge. The Bible says that when you judge, you will be judged. With the same measure you judge, you shall be judged and none of us wants to live with that."
Quite a contrast to Rick Warren, isn't he?