(MCT) WASHINGTON – After angering gay rights supporters with the choice of evangelist Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, President-elect Barack Obama has chosen the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal church to pray at the kickoff event for the inaugural festivities this Sunday.
Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who advised Obama on gay rights issues during the campaign, is set to deliver the invocation at an event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial two days before the swearing-in ceremony, aides to Obama said Monday.
The decision comes in the wake of a controversy over Obama’s selection of Warren, the pastor of a California mega-church and an opponent of gay marriage. Many gay rights activists and other liberal interest groups were infuriated by the prominent role Obama has given to Warren, who last year supported California’s successful Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage.
Robinson has also become a well known figure around the world in the debate over gay rights. His consecration as a bishop six years ago set in motion a widening rift in the Anglican church.
When Warren was invited to pray at the Jan. 20 inauguration, Robinson called the decision a ‘slap in the face.’ On Monday, though, Robinson lauded what he called Obama’s commitment to inclusiveness.
‘It’s important for any minority to see themselves as represented in some way, whether it be a racial minority, an ethnic minority or, in our case, a sexual minority,’ Robinson told his hometown newspaper, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire. ‘Just seeing someone like you up front matters.’
The appearance of both clergymen in the inaugural programs reflects Obama’s efforts to acknowledge disparate points on the political spectrum.
Other clergy members participating in inaugural events include the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the legendary civil rights leader, as well as the Rev. Sharon Watkins, the first woman ever chosen to deliver a sermon at the National Prayer Service. The inaugural committee says that service will celebrate America’s ‘diversity of faith.’
Lowery is a United Methodist pastor. Watkins leads the Disciples of Christ denomination.
The decision also highlights the difficult line Obama is trying to tread as he shares the stage with leaders with differing views. Though elated by the role Robinson will play in the proceedings, gay rights groups are still upset by the prominent position given to Warren. And for social conservatives, the choice of Robinson was a reminder of their considerable differences with Obama’s politics.
‘I find it kind of ironic that some were adamantly opposed to Rick Warren because he was ‘divisive,’ ‘ said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. ‘If you want to talk about somebody that is divisive, look at Gene Robinson. He essentially split one of the oldest Christian denominations in this country.’
By contrast, Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, said Robinson would be an inspirational figure.
‘So many people are going to be sitting in front of their TVs or computers, or around the world, watching this remarkable man offer up prayer for the new president,’ she said. ‘The vision will be of benefit to many people, not just lesbian, gay and transgendered people.’
Word of Warren’s selection, she said, had been ‘very hard news to hear . . . . Does Bishop Robinson make that selection better? No. I don’t know that that’s exactly the point.’
In a statement late Monday, Warren complimented Obama’s decision to invite Robinson. ‘President-elect Obama has again demonstrated his genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground,’ Warren said. ‘I applaud his desire to be the president of every citizen.’
Robinson, 61, endorsed Obama in August 2007, causing some to wag their fingers at the clergyman for mixing religion and politics.
‘As my work shows me every day, leadership means bringing people together and inspiring them to live out their values,’ Robinson said at the time. ‘Barack Obama sees beyond the partisanship and hopelessness that have dominated in recent years, and the movement he’s building is bringing vital new energy and optimism into our democratic process.’
Some Episcopalians blame Robinson for the division between liberals and conservatives in the church in the United States and abroad. Last month, theological conservatives upset by liberal views of U.S. Episcopalians and Canadian Anglicans formed a rival North American province, because they believe Robinson’s two-decade relationship with a male partner violates the biblical principles.
Robinson said in his interview with the Concord paper that he would not use the Bible in his address at Lincoln Memorial.
‘While that is a holy and sacred text to me, it is not for many Americans,’ Robinson said. ‘I will be careful not to be especially Christian in my prayer. This is a prayer for the whole nation.’
(Chicago Tribune staff writer Christi Parsons reported from Washington and staff writer Manya Brachear reported from Chicago.)