The temporary fury when Barack Obama selected Pastor Rick Warren to give Tuesday morning’s inaugural invocation spoke volumes about the state of the gay rights movement. As a gay American, I was briefly alarmed that Obama would select someone who has, after all, attacked my essence on repeated occasions. It felt like the appropriate, righteous response. But then suddenly ?–

I realized how bored I was getting with this pattern. Bored with finding evangelical straw men to lampoon, bored with scrutinizing every religious sentiment for traces of homophobia. But not just bored: I felt intellectually — and spiritually — dead. I felt like some evangelical ministers must feel, railing against people they don’t know personally, stoking the flames of a culture war which sustains them emotionally.

I felt like Rick Warren.

What has this civil rights movement come to if we can’t dialogue with Warren? There is a time for pain and protest and outcries aplenty. There is also a time for strategy. And those who support same-sex marriage rights are at a serious crossroads. If we do not find a way to communicate with religious conservatives, we will keep losing, battle after battle. After the passage of Proposition 8 in California, it makes sense to regroup and strategize.

Was the failure of Prop 8 due to religion? Yes. CNN exit polls report that Protestants and Catholics together comprised 73 percent of the California electorate this November, and that roughly 64 percent of them supported banning gay marriage. Weekly churchgoers (estimated at 22 to 32 percent of the electorate) passed Prop 8 with more than 80 percent support. The ban, remember, passed by only four percentage points. It would seem that if a few more religious voters had been recruited to the side of marriage equality, the ban would have been defeated.

Some look at these figures and feel depressed. I breathe a deep sigh of relief. Not following me? Imagine two opponents of same-sex marriage seated next to each other. One hates gay people instinctively, uses anti-gay epithets with reckless abandon, and bases his hatred on a personal aversion to the idea of gay sex. The other — lo, and behold! — is Pastor Rick Warren, who cites the Bible in defense of traditional marriage but councils his congregation to treat LGBT citizens with dignity and respect, cognizant of our universal fallen natures.

Which person would you rather contend with in the great civil rights battle of our era? I’ll take Warren, please. For if the central obstacle to LGBT rights is blind hatred, there is nothing to work with. But if it’s religious sentiment, there is ample room for negotiation: arguing for different Biblical interpretations, appealing to Jesus’ core teachings, demonstrating that real spiritual havoc results when people are deprived of their capacities for love. Indeed, many canvassers against Prop 8 were armed with just these talking points, and doubtless their efforts were successful at making the margin of passage so narrow.

I am certain that there is some overlap between bigots and religious people. (I also recognize that organizations for whom this overlap is second-nature indeed bankrolled the campaign to pass Prop 8.) But I feel in my soul that not all — not even most — religious opponents of same-sex marriage are seriously bigoted. Religion is the antagonist now, but it also provides the context for renegotiating norms and values as the broader culture progresses. Jim Wallis, in “God’s Politics,” argues that if the left leaves evangelicals behind, evangelicals will return the favor. And so they have. This realization no doubt drove Obama to extend the invitation to Warren, just as Warren invited Obama and John McCain to Saddleback Church during the heat of the campaign.

For those who think I’m kowtowing to frauds and hucksters, consider that if dialogue is an inevitable step on this civil rights battle, it should at least occur on our terms and our turf. The word “engagement” is often bandied around without direction, as if the lone goal was to exchange brief niceties before returning to respectively secular or religious lives. Here the purpose of engagement should be to bring evangelical Christianity up to speed with the human condition.

By inviting Warren to Tuesday’s proceedings, Obama is doing something revolutionary for 2009: giving evangelicals the chance to partake in the inauguration of a Democratic president — not as antagonists anxious for the end-of-days but as fellow Americans. Not long ago the presidential election of a pro-choice, pro-civil unions Democrat would have sent even mainstream evangelical preachers to the Book of Revelation, searching for evidence that the end was near. By reaching out instead, Obama renders that reaction erroneous.

Obama’s inauguration was a great, proud day for the United States of America. And in a very serious sense, Rick Warren’s presence made it an even better day. Or would you rather Warren be back in California, rallying the troops against the new Democratic president? Your pick.

Eric Schmidt ([email protected]) is a senior majoring in legal studies and political science.