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Obama calls upon gay N.H. bishop

Robinson to pray at celebration

Bishop V. Gene Robinson praised the 'big umbrella' Barack Obama is forming. Bishop V. Gene Robinson praised the "big umbrella" Barack Obama is forming.
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / January 13, 2009
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President-elect Barack Obama, facing criticism from gay rights advocates for picking an evangelical pastor who helped overturn same-sex marriage in California to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, has chosen the openly gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire to offer a prayer at a pre-inauguration event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Obama's choice, announced yesterday, of Bishop V. Gene Robinson to deliver the invocation at a star-studded inaugural celebration Sunday evening was immediately greeted with praise by gay rights advocates, who had been irate over the invitation to Rick Warren, one of the nation's most prominent evangelicals. Among the critics had been Robinson, an early Obama supporter who said yesterday he is now hoping that he will be able to sit down with Warren before either of them gives his opening invocation next week.

Robinson and Warren are two of four Protestant clergy given prominent prayer spots during the inaugural festivities - a United Methodist civil rights leader, Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, is giving the closing benediction at the inauguration next Tuesday, and the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, general minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), is giving the sermon at the national prayer service the following day.

"These are all very different people, with very different kinds of messages, from different churches and different backgrounds, and again it just underscores how diverse we can be when coming together," said Linda Douglass, Obama's inauguration spokeswoman.

In a telephone interview yesterday, Robinson said the inauguration committee contacted him about 2 1/2 weeks ago to invite him to offer the opening prayer at an event that will feature Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, and other celebrity performers.

"I'm incredibly humbled and honored by this invitation, and I think it says that Barack Obama is exactly who he told us who he was going to be, and by having me and Rick Warren in prominent places in the inaugural activities, it shows the big umbrella he intends to make of his administration," Robinson said.

Warren noted Robinson's criticism of him as recently as last week, when, according to an e-mail obtained by Christianity Today, the evangelical pastor offered the campus of his Saddleback Church to any Anglican congregation breaking away from the Episcopal Church, a step some have taken because of the controversy over Robinson's sexuality. But yesterday, Warren issued a conciliatory statement saying: "President-elect Obama has again demonstrated his genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground. I applaud his desire to be the president of every citizen."

A scholar who researches the role of religion in the public square said the choice of Robinson was a smart response to the flap over Warren, which erupted because of videotaped remarks the author of the best-selling "The Purpose Driven Life" made endorsing Proposition 8, the measure approved by California voters in November to overturn same-sex marriage in that state.

"In a sense, it shows the vapidity of the whole debate from the beginning. We're not talking policy here - we're talking pure symbolism, and symbols are relatively cheap for politicians to give out," said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.

Robinson said he met Obama in 2007, when the Illinois senator was an underdog candidate campaigning in the New Hampshire Democratic primary, which he ultimately lost to Hillary Clinton. Robinson said that Obama's staff reached out to him early in the campaign, and that the two had several conversations, by telephone and at social gatherings, as well as a lengthy and substantive conversation during a car ride between a campaign event and the airport.

Robinson endorsed Obama in August 2007. The endorsement was noteworthy because many religious leaders of Robinson's stature shy away from political endorsements out of concern about endangering their churches' tax status, but Robinson said he adhered to IRS guidelines.

"I worked behind the scenes advising him and the campaign around [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] issues, so this is largely based on the relationship that I've had with him over the last 18 months," Robinson said. "But they're obviously not unmindful that hopefully this will go a long way to bridging some of the divides that were caused by the Rick Warren invitation, and healing some of those wounds, and I'm just delighted to be doing it."

Robinson said he has no regrets over criticizing the Warren pick, reiterating yesterday that "everybody ought to be at the table, but six weeks after Proposition 8, that was a very hurtful thing for the gay and lesbian community, to have someone chosen not just to be at the table, but to be put before the nation on what will be the most-watched inaugural in history. It just sent the wrong message, and I think people advising him didn't think through that."

Robinson yesterday praised Warren for his work on AIDS and poverty issues, but said his comments on gay issues have been "appalling."

Robinson said he has not written his prayer, but yesterday he posted on his diocesan website twin prayers he had written, for the nation and for Obama, at the request of GQ magazine, and he said his prayer Sunday will address similar themes. "I want this prayer to be something that can be embraced by people of all faith traditions, and I think to be explicitly Christian would really exclude a lot of people," he said.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com

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