When an American Nazi group wanted to march in Skokie, Illinois, in 1977, residents reacted with vigor to keep the fascists off their streets. The American Civil Liberties Union ended up defending the Nazis – successfully — despite heavy Jewish involvement in and support for the ACLU. That defining moment in America's civil liberties history highlighted the need to be consistent in the defense of the rights of all in our country — even those whose views we may find abhorrent.
Now, gay and feminist voices, with others, are rising in opposition to president-elect Barack Obama's choice of the Reverend Rick Warren to say the invocation at the January inaugural.
The gay community, which (in some cases reluctantly) supported Obama after Hillary Clinton's presidential bid failed, has expressed particularly strong outrage about the selection of Warren, based on the Southern Baptist's vehement opposition to gay marriage. Pro-choice women oppose Warren for his anti-abortion stand.
Presidents consistently welcome the pope into their circle. Beloved liberal hero and martyr John Kennedy had John Cardinal Cushing at his inaugural. The current pope and Cushing represent the dinosaurs of the curia, opposed not only to abortion and to gay rights, but contraception, homosexuality, gender equity, and even divorce.
If Obama had asked the pope to come to Washington to pray over him and the nation in January, would there be similar outrage? I doubt it.
The lesson of the Warren debate is that many Americans rightfully fear the undue influence that the extreme religious right has had, and may continue to have, over government officials. Meanwhile, mainstream religious sects often get away with holding similar beliefs (and exerting similar influence) with less public challenge.
Religious tyranny comes in many forms and from many quarters. If we oppose the messages of sexism, bigotry, and especially hypocrisy, we must always oppose them, even if it means offending the pope or the top rabbi or imam.
Evangelicals are easier targets because they belong to a looser knit group, and because they sometimes have the disadvantage of ordaining ministers whose vocation, and understanding of, and commitment to religious teachings are questionable.
But evangelicals still have a long way to go to match the numbers of those put into bondage, tortured, and even killed by crusaders and religious fanatics from so-called "organized religions." They also often share the same offensive beliefs that their "organized" colleagues have been preaching for centuries.
So if we insist on being angry with those who misinterpret or misconstrue our vision of a loving God's mandate, we ought to be angry more often — and we ought to express our disapproval more consistently. Until then, all offenders must have equal rights.