Evangelical Pastor Pulls Out Of Inaugural Event

Evangelical pastor Louie Giglio of Atlanta has withdrawn from giving the inaugural benediction. He's being criticized for remarks he made against homosexuality about two decades ago. Host Michel Martin speaks with Laurie Goodstein, national religion correspondent for The New York Times, about the reaction to Pastor Giglio.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, you talk back to us. We'll hear comments and letters about some of our recent interviews and conversations. That's BackTalk. It's in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for Faith Matters. That's the part of the program where we talk about matters of faith and spirituality and, today, we want to talk about a controversy touching on faith and politics connected to President Obama's second inauguration, which is just over a week away.

Evangelical pastor Louie Giglio of Passion City Church in Atlanta had been selected to offer the benediction, but he has now withdrawn after gay rights supporters drew attention to remarks he made two decades ago condemning same-sex relationships and the gay rights movement. In a statement, he said that his prayer would have, quote, been dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration.

We wanted to learn more about this, so we've called Laurie Goodstein. She's a national religion correspondent for The New York Times and she's with us now by phone.

Laurie, thanks for joining us.

LAURIE GOODSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So tell us about Reverend Giglio. Why was he chosen to give the benediction in the first place?

GOODSTEIN: Well, he's an evangelist in Atlanta, Christian evangelist who has been working for many years with young people, high school and college students. He convenes large gatherings and, in recent years, he turned his attention to the issue of human slavery and, in particular, sex trafficking. And at his last big gathering in Atlanta, tens of thousands of young people - they raised millions of dollars to fight sexual slavery. He also has a church in Atlanta that he founded just a few years ago and President Obama had met him before. Just last year, they were together at an Easter prayer breakfast.

MARTIN: Now, as I understand it, the comments that caused him to withdraw - and one assumes he was asked to withdraw - were found by the liberal website Think Progress. They posted audio of the sermon and in the talk the pastor said he gave it 15 or 20 years ago, he cited Scripture. He said same-sex relationships were sinful and an abomination and he also criticized what he called the aggressive agenda for acceptance of the, quote, "homosexual lifestyle." And he also recommended the writings of an advocate for what has been called a conversion therapy that aims to convert gays and lesbians into heterosexual relationships, which has obviously been discredited as having no scientific basis at all.

But, as we said, this was a while ago, but is what he said - however painful it may be to some people - is that outside of the mainstream? Is there something that he said that's outside of the mainstream of evangelical theology?

GOODSTEIN: In his world, among evangelical Christians, these are very mainstream beliefs that homosexuality is a sin and that the only way to deal with it is to turn away from it, perhaps remain celibate, that this is what Scripture says. And another thing he said was that, you know, gay people cannot go to heaven and that the portrait he painted of the gay rights movement, he said it's not a benevolent movement; it's aggressive and wants to make the homosexual lifestyle, as he put it, a norm for all of our society.

Now, that is something that many conservative Christians do believe is an accurate portrayal of what's going on in the country. The reason this was difficult, however, for the Obama administration is, you know, President Obama has come out and endorsed gay marriage. It has put itself in support of measures in states to make gay marriage a norm and has won the loyalty of the gay rights movement. So, four years ago, President Obama had another pastor who prayed at the inauguration, Rick Warren, who even more recently than Reverend Giglio had endorsed an anti-gay measure in California, Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage...

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask you about that. Given that evangelical Pastor Rick Warren, very well-known, even outside of church circles, for his books, a best-selling author and so forth, delivered the invocation prayer at the president's first inauguration, which some gay rights groups criticized then. I guess the question would be, are Reverend Giglio's views very different from Rick Warren's views or is it that the context has changed or the politics of the issue have changed?

GOODSTEIN: I think the views are similar and they both come from a similar theological background, but yes, the times have changed. In four years, gay marriage has become more widely accepted. It's even become more widely accepted among evangelicals. There is a shift, in particular, among young evangelicals where they don't object necessarily to gay relationships and gay marriage.

And so, four years ago, Rick Warren was - even though, just a few weeks before the inauguration, he made comments in an interview with BeliefNet in which he likened gay relationships to incest. I mean, that was very offensive and very current and yet he went ahead and gave that prayer at the inauguration. So I think, in some ways, this is a real portrait of how times have changed.

MARTIN: Finally, Laurie, what's been the reaction in faith circles?

GOODSTEIN: Well, there are lots of religious leaders and religious folks who support gay rights and so they have applauded the White House and the Inaugural Committee, saying this is the right outcome. But, among conservative evangelicals, this has played into a fear that their views are not being tolerated and they have turned the tables and accused the White House and the gay rights movement of being intolerant of religion, but, you know, a president has a prerogative to choose who speaks at his inauguration. It doesn't mean that Reverend Giglio can't say what he believes about homosexuality, but you know, he's not included on this rostrum of speakers.

MARTIN: Laurie Goodstein is a national religion correspondent for The New York Times. She was with us by phone. Thank you for speaking with us.

GOODSTEIN: Thanks for having me.

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