In my opinion, having Pastor Rick Warren give the invocation at Barack Obama’s inaugural is a mistake, but it is a complicated, meaningful mistake that calls for a certain amount of analysis.
Rick Warren is a little different from most other well established Evangelical pastors. He is big, and famous, and powerful, and all of the evangelical fundamentalists in the United states have a copy of one or more of his book their on the shelf right next to the Bible and the Idiot’s Guide to Homeschooling your Children. So he is influential. But what is different about him is that he has used some of his influence to draw other evangelicals into working against global warming and to be involved in other important issues.
For this he can be commended, even though these efforts are usually fruitless and unimportant. Evangelicals can’t engage effectively in any pro-environment action because the conservative perspective is anti-environment and all fundamentalist evangelicals are conservative. Conservatives and evangelicals don’t live in Big Tents. A fundamentalist evangelical working against global warming is, from the conservative perspective, like a fireman who is an arsonist or a doctor who does not wash her hands before surgery. Except the doctor would be a ‘him’ because women should be at home doing chores and ‘educating’ the kids.
Nonetheless, it is easy to understand why Obama would a) have a fundie preacher give the invocation at the inaugural, and b) pick this particular one to do so. I want to lay out those reasons, give credit to Obama for trying to do the right thing, then tear the President Elect a new one for completely fucking this up. With all due respect, of course.
Reasons to accept, if not embrace, Obama’s decision to have Rick Warren give the invocation at the Presidential Inauguration
Obama is trying to erect a Big Tent. He mostly avoided (relatively speaking) taking a narrowly defined ideological perspective during the campaign. He is appointing conservatives and progressives, Democrats and Republicans, to positions of authority and power. He is being nauseatingly respectful of his political opposition. But, the “Big Tent” metaphor does not, by itself, describe what Obama is doing.
Beyond the Big Tent, I believe that Obama is doing something more proactive and more specific and potentially more powerful than merely ensuring there be a wide range of perspectives at the table. Obama is explicitly deconstructing well established boundaries that exist between and among diverse factions and philosophies. He is saying that Parties A and B have an historically deep, divisive, unfixable point of difference, but we are going to start with the premise that the difference is fixable, can bring us together rather than divide us, and the difference itself perhaps even possesses a power or energy that can be turned around to make something positive happen. He is insisting that people sit down together and not just talk past or negotiate around these differences, but rather, actively ignore the immutable barriers that separate us.
I like that, it can work, it needs to be tried, and even if it does not work in some areas we can look back later and say an effort was made … yada yada yada …
But then there are some realities to consider. This approach has been tried before, by Rick Warren himself. With respect to Global Warming, it turns out that when you get the fundies together to talk to scientists, ancient mortal enemies eventually recognized each other as such and start to bicker. The scientists remember that the religious establishment has never really atoned for their history of literally decapitating scientists, and the religious folk remember that there is very strong correlation between intelligence, scientific training, and atheism. This makes the religious people very uncomfortable when you sit down to talk. Seriously. Try it some time.
But the fact that this … bringing enemies together in the Big Tent … is hard is not a reason to not try it. No. There are other reasons that inviting Rick Warren to give the Invocation at the Inaugural is a bad idea that should be reversed.
Reasons to reject, if not actively attempt to thwart, Obama’s decision to have Rick Warren give the invocation at the Presidential Inauguration.
The first reason for resisting this decision is utterly obvious but has yet to be mentioned by a single mainstream commenter that I know of. Not even Rachel Maddow mentioned this, which, frankly, I find a little disappointing. (This is especially disappointing because I do have a major crush on her which, I suppose, makes me a gay woman, but I don’t care!) The reason is simple: It is offensive and unconstitutional to so deeply suffuse one of the most important public governmental ceremonies in which we engage with such a strong religious statement: That we must invoke the good will of a non-existent god or things will go badly. How medieval. How backwards. How superstitious. In fact, if you really get into it, you start thinking “Hey, let’s find some scientists and cut off their heads…”
But this (religious mumbo jumbo at government ceremonies even though prohibited by the Constitution) is how it is done, so let’s move on the the next objection.
Obama wants to have a Big Tent. But even in Africa, where diversity in political opinion is generally more commonplace than in other regions, there is an expression: “It is good to build a Big Tent. But even then, you don’t invite in the Hyenas.” One could argue, and many are making this argument, that Rick Warren is beyond the pale politically, and Obama should have realized this.
The counter argument to this comes from what I noted above: This is not just a matter of building a Big Tent, but rather, Obama is breaking down barriers and putting aside the deeply ingrained differences.
But there is a reason that this is not good enough.
The problem is that Obama has, so far, built a Big Tent, invited everyone to the party, but GLBT people are, for the most part, coming to the party as the caterers, not as full participants. During the campaign, rather than making the potentially controversial statement that when people call for full marriage rights for gay people that we should at least listen, he explicitly stated that he was opposed to gay marriage. If we are going to have a wedding ceremony in our big tent, fags and dykes need not apply.
OK, so maybe this was such a hot button issue that it would have been political suicide to enrage the hard right over the issue of gay marriage. Maybe that was just an expedience that can be overlooked. This would be a reasonable argument if Obama had made any other significant overture, show of support, or political sacrifice for the benefit of any aspect of the GLBTA coalition. I don’t think he has done this in any significant way. Please correct me if I am wrong.
I believe that the fact that Obama has not by prior action or words counterbalanced outreach to the explicitly anti-gay core of the fundamentalist right wing disqualifies him from claiming to be everyone’s president. Gay and lesbian people are not on the bus. In fact, the bus just went whizzing by and splashed mud all over them.
The abysmal political failure that we know of as Proposition Eight is relevant here. The fact that Proposition Eight passed, and that it was explicitly supported by Warren and generally by fundamentalist Christian groups, means that the GLBTA cause and coalition is forced backwards by one very painful and almost embarrassing step. Embarrassing at least to the “A(llies)” who see our brethren and sistren falter in the forward movement of a political and social transition that should have been completed long ago. Embracing the root cause of this uniquely American political and social failure is wrong. It is analogous to … oh never mind. The only analogies that come to mind right now are over the top sounding references to Nazis and Spanish Inquisitors.
And finally, the demonstrably shrewd Obama political machine has made a fundamental miscalculation here. Looking at this in a hard and cold non-emotional and purely Machiavellian way, there are two important dimensions to consider. One is the will and power of your allies, and the other is the influence your allies have on other allies or potential enemies. It is a bad move to isolate powerful allies, but it is even worse to anger the very well connected. Both fundamentalist Christians and GLBTA communities are powerful and well connected, so it would seem that this could be a coin toss. Pick either faction, make nice, gain power, get things done.
But there has been a very serious miscalculation here. Neither the GLBTA nor the Fundie Christian factions are trainable. They are not pets to take home from the pet store and add to one’s collection. They are potential allies with benefits and connections. But they are different from each other in a very important way. The GLBTA community is both diverse and philosophically committed to diversity. For instance, there are probably members of the GLBTA community who would agree with the arguments I made above (in favor of Obama’s decision) as politically necessary. But the Fundie Christian community is neither diverse nor interested in diversity. They do not have a big tent. They are narrow minded, committed to bigotry. In fact, they gain much of their power from bigotry. As has been shown again and again, the Fundamentalist Christian community is not a reliable ally unless you are with them 100% across the board with respect to a wide range of issues. And then you are not really their ally, are you? You are simply them. Ick.
The bottom line is this: In the long term, possibly even the medium or short term, Obama can’t have the Fundamentalist Christians as allies unless he simply joins them full out. This is how they play the game.
In politics it is important to chose wisely. In this case, I’m afraid that Obama did not.