(RNS) The evangelical pastor chosen by President Obama to deliver the benediction at his inauguration ceremonies withdrew on Thursday (Jan. 10) following a furor over a sermon from the mid-1990s in which he denounced the gay rights movement and advocated efforts to turn gays straight.
In a statement, the Rev. Louie Giglio of Atlanta, founder of the Passion Conferences for college-age Christians, did not directly renounce his remarks on gays but indicated that fighting gay rights is not one of his “priorities.”
Still, because of the controversy -- which erupted on Wednesday after the liberal group Think Progress posted audio of the sermon -- Giglio said that “it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration.”
“Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past 15 years,” said Giglio, who was chosen to deliver the blessing at the Jan. 21 ceremony because of his longtime work against human trafficking.
“Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ. Neither I, nor our team, feel it best serves the core message and goals we are seeking to accomplish to be in a fight on an issue not of our choosing, thus I respectfully withdraw my acceptance of the President’s invitation."
Addie Whisenant, a spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said in a statement that organizers were not aware of Giglio’s past comments when he was chosen -- reportedly with Obama’s personal input. Giglio’s remarks “don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural,” the statement said.
Giglio’s exit was swift, coming just 24 hours after the sermon went public. That illustrated not only a concern that nothing disturb the civic ritual of the presidential inauguration, but also showed how unsettled the nation remains on gay rights despite – or perhaps because of -- the rapid changes in public opinion.
Four years ago when Obama chose California megachurch pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural blessing, there was criticism because of his opposition to gay rights -- the best-selling evangelical author had worked to pass Proposition 8, which ended gay marriages in California. But calls for him to step aside were ignored by both Warren and Obama.
Obama’s pick for defense secretary, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, has faced criticism for his comments in 1998 about an openly gay Clinton nominee for ambassador. Hagel has since apologized and renounced those remarks as “insensitive.”
The Giglio dust-up is providing another opportunity for each side to highlight its message.
“Are all orthodox clergy now to be banished from civic life if they openly affirm their faith's teachings about marriage and sexual ethics?” said Mark Tooley, president of the conservative Institute on Religion and Democracy.
“Are only clergy from declining liberal denominations now acceptable according to hyper political correctness? Will the same standard also apply to Muslims and members of other faiths who don't subscribe to the views of Western secular elites?”
Gay rights groups, on the other hand, welcomed Giglio’s departure and pushed the administration to name a gay-friendly replacement.
The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation posted a list of 10 candidates, including Jay Bakker, son of former televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and Rachel Held Evans, a popular evangelical author and blogger.
Whisenant said the inaugural would now look for a replacement for Giglio and “will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.”
The ceremonies will already feature a reading from poet Richard Blanco, a Cuban-American gay man, and the Lesbian and Gay Band Association of St. Louis will be marching in the inaugural parade.
Pastor Joel Hunter, a spiritual advisor to Obama and a Florida megachurch leader, said that Giglio had been a good choice for the inaugural benediction.
"He represents the next generation of ministry, he's been a very public advocate against human trafficking, and he just had 40,000 young people down to Atlanta for the Passion conference."
Hunter said the Giglio controversy reflects a media that digs for labels and soundbites, as well as the tightrope that conservative evangelicals walk on homosexuality.
"Some of us are trying to follow Scripture, but in no way want to discriminate against or demean someone with a different sexual orientation," he said. "What gets reported, though, is only when we're trying to articulate what Scripture says."
Here is the full text of Giglio's withdrawal statement:
I am honored to be invited by the President to give the benediction at the upcoming inaugural on January 21. Though the President and I do not agree on every issue, we have fashioned a friendship around common goals and ideals, most notably, ending slavery in all its forms.
Due to a message of mine that has surfaced from 15-20 years ago, it is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration. Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ.
Neither I, nor our team, feel it best serves the core message and goals we are seeking to accomplish to be in a fight on an issue not of our choosing, thus I respectfully withdraw my acceptance of the President's invitation. I will continue to pray regularly for the President, and urge the nation to do so. I will most certainly pray for him on Inauguration Day.
Our nation is deeply divided and hurting, and more than ever need God's grace and mercy in our time of need.
Here is the text of a statement from the Presidential Inaugural Committee:
“We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this Inaugural. Pastor Giglio was asked to deliver the benediction in large part for his leadership in combating human trafficking around the world. As we now work to select someone to deliver the benediction, we will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.“
KRE/AMB END GIBSON