Saturday, January 17, 2009
Pastor Strangelove
Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Fact that Rick Warren is Giving the Inaugural Prayer.

I was talking with a friend today who lives in San Francisco--exchanging New Year's greetings and getting caught up. I mentioned I had just seen Milk; she had seen it in the Castro district. Then we talked about the inauguration--she was thinking about flying back across the country to attend, I'm thinking about whether I want to deal with the crowds and gridlock, or just stay home (I mean, come on, I'm only two hours away! but...) in the course of this conversation, we talked about Obama's decision to have megachurch pastor Rick Warren give the inaugural prayer.

Now, leaving aside the whole question of why we even have a prayer at the swearing-in of the president of a country whose Constitution specifies that religion and government are to be separate, the choice of this particular religious leader in particular to deliver the prayer has become the first major disappointment of Obama's supporters (don't worry, there'll be many more to come--he's only human, after all!)

My friend, living in California (and formerly married to another woman in Denmark), felt the selection of Warren as a sort of one-two punch after the passage of proposition 8. Many of my friends and others whom I respect also are disappointed, hurt and angry (or at least disapproving and disparaging) about this choice. I, too, was incredulous when I first heard the news. But since then, I've given it a lot of thought, and my thinking about it has evolved. I now feel that while I wouldn't have made this particular choice, I understand why Obama has; and while I don't in any way approve of Warren or his views, I think the choice actually makes sense.

First, one thing we forget to consider is that evangelical christians are not a monolithic group. Right-wing fundamentalists and evangelicals are not one and the same. Those of us who are not part of these religious traditions may not realize it, but these are separate groups of religious, who don't necessarily share the same views. There are plenty of conservative and right-wing (note: this is not a redundancy: I don't use conservative and right-wing interchangeably, as I see right-wing as being radical, not conservative) evangelicals, but there is also a growing group of liberal evangelicals,

Another thing to keep in mind is that not all of Warren's followers are so thrilled with the choice either--plenty of conservative and right-wing christians feel that by giving the prayer Warren is endorsing Obama's views on gays and abortion. In fact, the controversy among conservative christians regarding the Warren/Obama relationship goes back a few years.

In our conversation, my friend said that she thought that Obama chose Warren for political reasons, and of course, he did. But this is not as cynical as it sounds. First, Obama is not a left-wing politician: while he ran to the left of Hillary, and a lot of people were caught off-guard when he corrected course after Hillary conceded, no one who has paid attention to his actions in office could think that he was left-wing. Second, Obama was so successful in the primaries because of the way he drew people in. This is partly his cypher-like personality--people see in Obama what they wish to see. But partly it's because of his human and political instincts, which are very finely honed. And those instincts helped enable him to build a Democratic majority in this election--something that we have seemed unable to do since Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove and their ilk pandered to Americans' lowest impulses. Obama's instincts in this instance are true (though I think he's somewhat disingenuous when he explains his reasoning). Finally, Obama surged to the forefront in the election even in traditionally red states because people (including evangelicals) are changing their attitudes on those social wedge issues like gays and abortion. The power of the right-wing to use those issues as boogie men to scare people to the right is waning.

My friend understood my reasoning, when I explained why I was no longer opposed to the Warren choice, but felt that the same thing could have been accomplished by appointing Warren to serve on some council or something. But, that would not have accomplished the same purpose, because it would not be such a public statement.

This election saw a significant gain in evangelicals voting Democratic. That seems surprising to us because we have become used to assuming that they would all vote Republican, and all for the same reasons. But in making such assumptions, we both gave up on evangelicals, and (mis)underestimated their power--and ended up ceding a huge voting bloc to the Republicans. This was really stupid of us, because within the past 30 years, we've had three evangelical christians in the white house--and two of these were Democrats! (and let's not forget Al Gore, who SHOULD have been the third...). So how did we get to the point where we let the Republicans rake in this vote?

First, we lumped all fundamentalist/evangelical/conservative christians into one group. Then, we bought the bill of goods GWB was selling--that he was "conservative" (when in fact, he's not conservative by any measure: not on spending, obviously, and not on politics--he's far right). Then, we bought into the media's characterization of "values voters," when in fact, ALL voters are values voters. Many Democratic values, which include responsibility to all members of society, social justice, the environment, compassion, fairness, adherence to the Constitution, democracy, education, political solutions before military... etc. are shared by evangelicals. But by not defining OURSELVES as values voters, we let Republicans own this term--and evangelicals' votes.

Barack Obama's instincts and understanding of this is what helped him pull in enough people of every political stripe, including evangelicals, who were tired of sleaze, cynicism and expediency. Lincoln's famous quote about fooling all of the people some of the time is true--the people got tired of being fooled (and we won't be fooled again!) and were ready for some REAL values, not cynical pandering to values not shared by those doing the pandering. I think Obama is trying to a) cement this relationship between Democrats and evangelicals and b) show that we're not just pandering to get their vote and then dropping them like a hot potato. Democrats have done this before with African-American voters, and this has been another reason for our failures since 2000--we counted on a constuency that we'd not done enough for to deserve to keep.

Yes, by giving this honor to Warren, Obama is spending political capital. And I suppose it does seem hubristic to do so. But, unlike Bush, who spent all his capital, Obama is investing it. (Which is what one ought to do with capital, no?). Whether he's investing wisely, only time will tell.

UPDATE: Obama will now have Gene Robinson, gay episcopalian bishop, also give a prayer at the inauguration. Perhaps he should have announced both choices at the same time, so it would not appear that he's now pandering to gays and the left? Well, nobody asked for my advice.

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