President-elect Barack Obama's selection of conservative fundamentalist minister Rick Warren, who supported California's Proposition 8 in last month's elections, to deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration has caused many of Obama's progressive supporters to feel a sense of "betrayal," as Neil Buchanan has written at Dorf on Law. Singer, songwriter, and Prop 8 opponent Melissa Etheridge, who is openly lesbian and has been a longtime activist for gay rights and other progressive causes, had much the same initial reaction. While she had never previously heard of Warren, she wondered whether Warren was a "hate spouting, money grabbing, bad hair televangelist like all the others," and whether she should boycott the inauguration on account of his selection.
Given the controversy, Etheridge was "stunned" to learn that Warren would be giving the keynote address at the Muslim Public Affairs Council's annual convention in California -- where Etheridge herself was scheduled to appear with Junoon's Salman Ahmad to perform "Ring The Bells," a song they had co-written "call[ing] for peace and unity in our world." (Since December, apparently, is "Using Music to Change the World Month," the MPAC performance was intended to initiate a broader "Ring the Bells for Peace" Campaign, which you can read more about here.)
Etheridge says that she initially contemplated canceling her appearance at MPAC on account of Warren's appearance. However, as she recounts at the Huffington Post, Etheridge ultimately decided on a different approach to the situation:
Then a calm voice inside me said, "Are you really about peace or not?"
I told my manager to reach out to Pastor Warren and say "In the spirit of unity I would like to talk to him."...
When we met later that night, he entered the room with open arms and an open heart. We agreed to build bridges to the future.
Brothers and sisters the choice is ours now. We have the world's attention. We have the capability to create change, awesome change in this world, but before we change minds we must change hearts. Sure, there are plenty of hateful people who will always hold on to their bigotry like a child to a blanket. But there are also good people out there, Christian and otherwise that are beginning to listen. They don't hate us, they fear change. Maybe in our anger, as we consider marches and boycotts, perhaps we can consider stretching out our hands....
Maybe if they get to know us, they won't fear us.
I know, call me a dreamer, but I feel a new era is upon us. [link]
Etheridge also said that Warren expressed regrets for his earlier remarks comparing gays to pedophiles and those who commit incest.
Earlier this year, Ahmad wrote about the genesis of "Ring the Bells," which was recorded in April:
When Melissa Etheridge and Junoon performed last December at the Nobel Peace prize ceremony in Oslo, we were doing sound checks before the show at the Oslo Spectrum in Norway. Listening to her sing just from a few feet away, I was blown away by the power of Melissa's voice and the unity of vibrations contained in it. She gave me goosebumps....
Melissa and I became friends and musical admirers and in January, this year, she invited me to her home to spend a couple of days in Los Angeles where we talked about many things. Among them, Love and Unity and how they are universal themes running from Rumi to the Beatles. In both East and West its poetry and music which unites humanity rather than politics which aims to divide and demonize 'the other'. Melissa and I also talked about the children of Abraham: Jesus, Moses and Muhammad and their common spirit of brotherhood and sacrifice. We sat with acoustic guitars and out of that intense talking and jamming came "Ring the Bells."
Ring The Bells is a cry for Peace and change in a world of war and chaos. Our only guiding principle was to be passionate, truthful and sincere and to allow the Universe to inspire us...and boy did the Universe ever conspire to inspire! [link]
You can listen to the song here (or in the player embedded above). For his part, in his MPAC keynote address, Warren professed his Love and Unity for all kinds of different groups:
Let me just get this over, real quickly: I love Muslims.
And I also happen to love Hindus, and Jews, and Buddhists.
Now, this one will shock you: I happen to love Democrats and Republicans.
And for the media's purpose, I happen to love gays and straights. [link]
Finally, scholar Juan Cole, who also spoke at MPAC, shares some of his own reactions to Etheridge, Warren, and the MPAC convention:
[I]magine my surprise when I heard Warren talk at MPAC and found that he is a genuine, likeable man. And more than likeable, he seems admirable. A lot of pastors would tell the story of building their congregations and saving souls as the pinnacle of their lives. For Warren, that was only the beginning. He and his wife had an epiphany six years ago when she read an article about there being 12 million children in Africa who had been orphaned by AIDS. They started going to southern Africa, and Warren became devoted to helping those orphans....
Warren, in short, is a representative of the turn of some evangelicals to a social gospel. Since evangelicalism is a global movement and very interested in mission, his social gospel not surprisingly becomes a global social gospel. He is active in South Africa, Rwanda and more recently Uganda.
In opinion polls, evangelicals are by far the most bigoted Americans versus Muslims. But that sentiment derives from theological competition (and competition for souls). Once a pastor turns, as Warren did, to a social gospel, then he has social goals to accomplish, and he needs all the help he can get. A social gospel creates a field of practical ecumenism….
So you begin to see why Obama is reaching out to this man…. If Warren is the future of the American evangelical movement, then many more evangelicals might end up Democrats, since it is Democrats who care about poor people, illiteracy, and AIDS victims. And if any significant proportion of evangelicals can be turned into consistent Democrats, the party would more regularly win elections in some parts of the country and even nationally.
I came away liking and looking up to Warren. In fact, I wonder whether with some work he could not be gotten to back off some of the hurtful things he has said about gays and rethink his support for Proposition 8. [link]
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