I think it’s safe to say that no decision by Barack Obama since his vote for FISA legislation much earlier this year has aroused as much authentic anger among progressives as his invitation to evangelical superstar Rick Warren to provide the invocation at his inauguration next month.
Some of the backlash over Warren reflects broad-based concerns that Obama’s style of religious outreach has, well, overreached by embracing a religious leader who considers homosexuality a sin, evolution a hoax, legalized abortion a holocaust, and “evildoers” like the elected president of Iran a target for a righteous assassination. Sarah Posner has articulated these concerns in a typically thorough piece at The Nation:
Warren represents the absolute worst of the Democrats’ religious outreach, a right-winger masquerading as a do-gooder anointed as the arbiter of what it means to be faithful. Obama’s religious outreach was intended, supposedly, to make religious voters more comfortable with him and feel included in the Democratic Party. But that outreach now has come at the expense of other people’s comfort and inclusion, at an event meant to mark a turning point away from divisive politics.
Damon Linker, known mainly for his aggressive and informed criticism of the Religious Right, offers publicly what I’ve privately heard a fair number of Democrats say in defense or dismissal of the Warren choice:
Obama’s a politician, and the Warren pick is just the latest sign that he’s an exceedingly shrewd one (as Andrew concedes). Warren is beloved by mainstream evangelicals, who have helped him to sell millions of books extolling a fairly anodyne form of American Protestantism. (Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell he is not.) It is in Obama’s interest (and the Democrats’) to peel as many moderate evangelicals away from the GOP as he can. Giving Warren such a prominent (but purely symbolic) place in the inauguration is a politically cost-free way of furthering this partisan agenda.
As Linker’s post indicates, part of the disagreement over this issue reflects deeper disagreements on several points. What is the symbolic value, positive or negative, of Warren’s role in the inauguration? What is the source and significance of Warren’s cult-like celebrity? Is he, as Posner calls him, a “culture warrior wolf” in “sheep’s clothing,” or, as Linker suggests, a purveyor of Oprah-style lifestyle advice that can be separated from his deeper theological and political positions? And who is legitimizing whom here? Is Warren blessing Obama’s progressive agenda, or is Obama blessing Warren’s reactionary views?
All these are legitimate arguments to have, this day or any day, but there’s not much question that what makes this dispute red-hot at present is Warren’s visible role, as a California-based megapreacher, in support of California’s Proposition 8 outlawing gay marriage.
It is abundantly clear that LGBT activists view the passage of Prop 8 as representing the dark underside of what is generally being treated by progressives as a Jubilee event on November 4. That it happened in a state that Barack Obama carried by a huge margin is especially troubling, and is understandably being interpreted as a sign that LGBT folk are being excluded from the Obama coalition. No one should be surprised that Obama’s decision to give an avid Prop 8 supporter a central role in his inauguration–offering, in fact, the blessings of Almighty God to the new presidency–would feel like salt poured into fresh wounds.
But the backlash to the Warren designation illustrates something else about Prop 8 that hasn’t gotten much attention in progressive circles: a real sea-change in LGBT acceptance of half-loaf Democratic commitments to equality. Put aside, if you can, the motives and underlying agenda of the most important Prop 8 proponents, and the lies they told to push the initiative over the line to victory. The actual language of Prop 8–“no” to gay marriage, along with “yes” or at least “maybe” to everything short of that–is highly congruent with the default-drive position of many, and probably a majority, of Democratic pols in the very recent past. The Democratic nominee for president in 2004 took this position. So, too, did the 2008 candidate for president often thought of as most “progressive,” John Edwards. And it’s within shouting distance of Obama’s own position, even though he did make clear his own opposition to the initiative. And it’s hard to find a prominent Democratic elected official in culturally conservative parts of the country who hasn’t followed the no-to-gay-marriage, yes-to-domestic-partnerships template, though it’s not so hard to find some who haven’t even gone that far in a progressive direction.
Why is that postion now being deemed so insultingly unacceptable in progressive company? I’d say it’s mainly because Prop 8 overturned established marriage rights that upwards of 20,000 couples joyfully took advantage of during the five-month regime of legalized gay marriage in California. Whereas in previous gay marriage struggles Democrats might be grudgingly forgiven for failing to have the political courage to blaze new trails, Prop 8 represents a (literally) reactionary step back, and in a state that is so often described as a cultural and political trend-shaper. Even as Prop 8 has galvanized the argument that gay marriage should be regarded as a fundamental right indicative of basic equality, not as a negotiable sign of “progress” or “tolerance,” Prop 8 has almost certainly changed, probably forever, the terms on which LGBT folk will participate in the progressive coalition and the Democratic Party, despite the obvious lack of political alternatives.
I think it’s actually a testament to progressive faith in Team Obama’s political acumen that it’s generally assumed he invited this controversy deliberately by paying Rick Warren the honor of a role in his inauguration. But it’s a conflict that will persist after the echoes of Warren’s invocation have long died.