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Barack Obama’s selection of conservative Baptist pastor Rick Warren to deliver the opening benediction at the presidential inauguration caused an outcry from pro-gay citizens who thought at last they had a champion in the White House. The choice was called a slap in the face. Pastor Warren was called all kinds of names, generally meant to label him as intolerant and worse.

With the reins of power at last in the hands of someone who shares our values, how shall we liberals conduct ourselves? Shall we seize the wheel and drive as recklessly as our predecessors in power, or is a new way of driving incumbent upon us if we are to be true to our liberal principles?

The liberal part of American society has worked and waited a long time for this moment. Our views have been roughly treated while the religious right held sway. Will we now commit the same sin in the opposite direction? Will we delight in pushing socially conservative Americans into an eight-year-long disenfranchisement such as we have endured? Would that be in accord with what we claim to stand for?

The civil rights struggle was waged in our courts, our churches, our schools and sometimes at the point of a bayonet. But at no time during those difficult days were the proponents of the unacceptable status quo shut out of our national life, except for those who would advance their cause by violence. Like the struggle for civil rights, the struggle for gay rights will in the end be won in the courtroom and the ballot box. These in turn are only as strong as the principle that unifies us as a people. By inviting Rick Warren to make the benediction at the inauguration, Barack Obama strengthened this principle and therefore brightened the prospect that those who struggle for equality under the law for gays will one day prevail.

There are certain points of view that surely merit being called intolerant. The view, for example, that one race or gender is inherently inferior to another, is intolerance in its essence. An advocate of such a view has no place in the national dialogue, and no place at the presidential inauguration. The injustice to a gay man denied his rights is as acute as the injustice to a black man denied his. But is the biblically-based view that homosexuality deserves no protection under the law intolerance in the same sense as racism is intolerance? Some would say yes, others no.

We liberals have choices to make. Will we brand all views we disagree with as intolerant? Or, will we muster the moral strength to recognize a view as credible for its sobriety and sincerity even if it is anathema to us? The views represented by Rick Warren are credible based upon their sobriety and sincerity, and those who espouse them have a right to a place and a voice in the life of the nation.

Barack Obama’s historic inauguration belongs to all Americans. It is the essence of E Pluribus Unum that we of all faiths, beliefs and opinions pause in our conflicts to gather and observe it, to participate in it, and to have a voice in it. This includes Rick Warren, whatever he believes, and me, whatever I believe, and you, reader, whatever you believe.

Chris Mills lives in Groton with his wife. He has three adult children. Chris welcomes reader feedback at cmills@gis.net.

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