Saturday, December 20, 2008

RICK WARREN: WHAT WAS OBAMA THINKING?

By William Fisher

Barack Obama’s choice of Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the inauguration invocation was either the most cynical or the most na├»ve move the president-elect has yet made.

To begin with, this strikes me as a strange move for a careful guy like Obama to make. He didn’t have to make it. If he felt his swearing-in had to have some religious flavor to it, he could have chosen from a field of hundreds of respected clergyman. Like, say, Jim Wallis, or any number of African-American preachers who aren’t Rev. Wright.

So why this choice?

Here’s what the cynics would tell you, as posited by Hillary Rosen in Huffington Post:

“There is a new political reality for LGBT people to deal with and how it works will be a measure of the sophistication and capability of the community. It was never a community that represented more than 6 or 7% of the vote in most campaigns, and it seems the biggest numbers are achieved in districts that are already reliably Democratic. Raising and giving political money always helped the community to play a larger role at the table than its numbers would seemingly offer and yet in this new era of online fundraising, constituent fundraising has diminishing importance. So we saw lots of mollifying and calculating when it came to new Obama Administration appointees for other constituencies but to date not much more than a little handwringing when it came to LGBT appointees”

So the LGBT constituency is not all that important to Obama. It can be thrown under the bus and “change we can believe in” will survive. Where else does this group have to go?

Then there’s the Obama camp’s Cumbaya approach. We may each have fiercely different opinions about issues but we can all come together as Americans. We can, as they say, dialogue.

Now, I’m all for dialogue. It helps us understand where the other fellow stands, and how he/she feels and why.

But then what? Do I change my mind? Does the other fellow? Sometimes, on issues that are highly technical, or those we consider clearly peripheral, maybe. But not about any viewpoint or conviction we consider fundamental to who we are. If I meet a rabid racist who does a great job of explaining to me how he is just a product of his racist parents, I may understand how he got where he is, but would that persuade me to become a racist? Never. There’s a difference between sociology and conviction.

At that level, dialogue is not only irrelevant; it can be damaging. The struggle for civility and understanding can take political correctness to a whole new low. It can have the effect of homogenizing us.

Wouldn’t it be more honest if we just recognized that, on some issues, “getting to yes” just won’t work?

The Rick Warren issue is one of these. He may be doing lots of good works in areas like HIV/AIDS, alleviating poverty, advocating for action on climate change, et cetera. And we should be grateful to him for that. But similar work is being done by hundreds of other bona fide clergymen (and women) who just don’t happen to preach at megachurches.

What Rev. Rick chooses to say on January 20th is irrelevant. It’s all the other stuff we already know about – but won’t hear a peep about on inauguration day – that we’ll remember. It’s Warren’s views on issues like same-sex marriage and a woman’s right to choose that frame this mega-preacher in many minds. To millions who don’t agree with him, he’s little more than Jerry Falwell in a Hawaiian shirt.

Nothing he says is going to change that. And nothing we say is going to change him. Evangelicals will be happy; LBGT-ers will feel the stick in their eye.

Is this important? As Hillary Rosen points out, the LBGT community not an existential constituency for our new president. Moreover, inauguration preachers don’t make public policy; what they say on January 20th is usually forgotten by January 21st, if not sooner.

But symbolism is important, and it’s especially important for this particular inauguration. Regardless of how he may try to nuance it, Rick Warren is part of the constituency that was courted and won over by George W. Bush. And it was the enthusiastic support of this constituency that played such a major role in W’s journey to the White House. We can dialogue with them from now till The Rapture, but many of their ideas will still be anathema to most of those who elected Barack Obama.

So this is not change we can believe in. In fact, it’s not change at all. It’s more of the same. And that’s not what we voted for.

Obama’s choice of Rick Warren is a totally avoidable mistake of considerable proportion. The clergyman or woman who delivers the invocation next month could have been – should have been – a symbol of the values Obama believes in most deeply – the ones that won our support.

Rick Warrren is not that person.