Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rick Warren, Obama, and the Center in American Politics

For more or less every person vaguely in the US political blogosphere, and especially for those people who care about social issues, the big looming discontent this week has focused on Barack Obama's selection of Rick Warren as the minister to give the inaugural invocation. And this is good - in our participatory democracy where personal views matter as much as stated policy aims, we as the public, as the pale apparition of new journalism, and even alongside the white elephant of old journalism (a term of endearment, that) have a right and a duty to examine in as much detail the little signifiers which could become the big signifiers.

There's some real grounds for fear here. In the wake of prop 8, and with the side note that the Obama campaign had both "Obama/Yes on 8" and "Obama/No on 8" voters, it seems like the president is not so beholden to the LGBT community as many had hoped. This perceived abandonment is cemented in the minds of many by Rick Warren. After all, he has likened gay marriage to incest and pedophilia. That's more or less an unforgivable offense, right?

Well, yes and no. Which I guess really means no. For many, any nuanced qualifiers (which, if you know me, you know are coming) are not enough. The far left, the progessive left, the left-left, the bleeding-hear-left, social libertarians, and a good many in the moderate left all view this as completely unacceptable. There are almost certainly political scientists right now formulating Obama's political obituary, examining the breakup of the new new deal coalition. First it was the social issues, they'll say. And indeed, I cannot begrudge those who feel betrayed right now, who feel that Obama himself has crossed a line of no return. This is not the first thing to exhaust serious political capital among the left, but it is one of the biggest. And for many, the mere act of the appointment overrides two very important things Obama is doing.

Firstly, Obama himself has a statement of very, very importantly phrased qualifiers. Secondly, Obama is appointing people with far more accepting views to actual meaningful positions.

Here's what I think are Obama's two key points:
• The President-elect disagrees with Pastor Warren on issues that affect the LGBT community. They disagree on other issues as well. But what's important is that they agree on many issues vital to the pursuit of social justice, including poverty relief and moving toward a sustainable planet; and they share a commitment to renewing America's promise by expanding opportunity at home and restoring our moral leadership abroad.

• As he's said again and again, the President-elect is committed to bringing together all sides of the faith discussion in search of common ground. That's the only way we'll be able to unite this country with the resolve and common purpose necessary to solve the challenges we face.
(emphasis mine). Barack Obama's selection of Rev. Rick Warren is not a blanket endorsement of Warren's views and attitudes. It is not even an endorsement of a majority of Rick Warren's views. It is, instead, an endorsement of a few very specific areas of Rick Warren's ministry - Obama says of Rick Warren that "He's devoted his life to performing good works for the poor and leads the evangelical movement in addressing the global HIV/AIDS crisis" (emphasis, again, mine). This is that evangelical movement which, to an outsider like myself, appears to have repeatedly placed itself in opposition to all the issues of social justice I've cared about. No doubt many are attributing the differences in the success of McCain and Bush's presidential campaigns to the evangelical fervor that swung behind Bush, and was more lacking in support of McCain. This is a group I'd more or less written off as "the opposition". Fortunately for me, the political Left, and the United States on the whole, Obama does not see evangelicals that way.

Rick Warren's presence at the inauguration is not the selling out to the religious right that many fear it is. It is instead an acknowledgment of the religious center, which has been missing from our political discourse. Yes, Rick Warren has views which are antithetical to many progressives. But Rick Warren is not alone in that, and while he did speak in favor of proposition 8, and we can disagree with him on that, he does care about global poverty, and he cares about the fight against AIDS. Obama agrees with Rick Warren on those latter terms, and disagrees on the former. This is not a matter of selling out - this is a matter of acknowledging the diversity of our nation. A messy, sometimes frustrating diversity of opinion, but this is a rather vital one. Obama's inauguration will have another minister, a "giant of the civil rights movement" give the benediction. And Obama has made other, more meaningful actions to show support of LGBT people. That list of meaningful actions includes some hesitancy, and it includes some cautious opinions on his part. It also lacks the neat, doctrinaire uniformity that progressives want from their messiah, and we are foolish for wanting this.

This is a nation of diversity, and any leader who adheres so strongly to just one faction is a leader that betrays the core principles of democracy. It does not meant that our voices aren't valid - they are, now, more than ever. But it does mean that the nation isn't monolithic, that the president has to acknowledge that, and that sometimes a nation has to change underneath it's leader to move him in the right direction.

Obama's inclusion of Rick Warren in his inauguration is a sign that being on the left, or holding even center-left views (like an obligation to fight poverty) does not mean one can't express religion. It's a shame and unfortunate that religion in US politics is presently tied to the Religious Right; Rick Warren himself, while an evangelical, can be found much more awkwardly in the center, where his views do not easily align himself to one party - it's an awkward nation where religiously justified condemnation of poverty and religiously explained condemnation of sexual orientation do not share the same ticket, but it's the nation we have been living in. Obama, by including Rick Warren, seeks to bring religion into the discussion on social justice; it's been isolated in issues of social norms for so long that it's hard to remember the more broader applications of Jesus's teachings, the ones that apply out of the bedroom. By including Rick Warren, Obama does not endorse Warren's views on homosexuality - what Obama does do is endorse evangelicals taking an active role in social justice. This is not a move that could be made in a US where a whole side of the spectrum can hold "unforgivable" views. We, as the left, were excited to see on election day that cries of "socialism" and "spread the wealth around", topics for decades off-limits to US politicians, were not run into the ground. Not to say that we should be accepting of Warren's intolerances, but we should open up a dialog where our sound reason can win the day - excluding one side from every discussion because we don't like where they stand on one of them is tragic, and hurts our nation as a collective whole.

If you've made is this far, you've noticed my tip-toeing around the other big issue that upsets the left with Rick Warren's selection. Rick Warren not only actively campaigned against gay marriage, but he is fairly active against a Women's Right to Choose. I've buried this issue, not because I don't think it's relevant, but because it is harder and harder to see the right-to-life (or, if you prefer, anti-choice) side being an overwhelming national movement. The pro-choice fight is more and more of a quiet one -I'm willing to bet that the silent majority is pretty much entrenched on the side of choice in this one. Perhaps they want more qualifiers, refinement in the right, but this is a right that seems to be guaranteed. Not that we shouldn't fight - we kind of have to. But the fight can be won, and noticeable in this election the pro-choice fight had three significant victories - unsurprising in California, welcome in Colorado, and perhaps most profound in South Dakota. Christine over at iMinister made an important note of this in her post-election sermon. Rick Warren is not on the side of history for this one, and while I'm unwilling to say that progress here is irreversible, it is instead in the enviable position of being well defended when even the movement defending it seems to, at times, be on the margin. It's one of the few times I like how effective the silent majority is, and when the silent majority is winnign the battles in the ballot booth, it means the issue is close to safe. Rick Warren's anti-choice actions and opinions do not undermine this progress

There is one last point I have to make here, on this issue. The picture below these words is one of the most heartening signs that progressives will not be lost in this election. That, right there, is New Mexico's congressional delegation for 2009. On the far right (ha ha) is Senior Senator Jeff Bingaman, who has been protecting the interests of progressives nationally and in New Mexico for twenty five years. The remaining men in the picture (L to R, Ben Ray Lujan, Martin Heinrich, Tom Udall, and Harry Teague) are New Mexico's three congressional representatives, with the exception of Tom Udall, New Mexico's new Junior Senator. For all the symbolic angst that may arise about Rick Warren's stands on social issues, these are five reliable votes against those initiatives. For all the doubts about Obama's sincerity to his supporters on the left, these are five votes that will pull him further to where he should be. And for every move made to combat AIDS, and for every move aimed at fighting poverty, these are five votes that will reliably side with progress.

And that dichotomy mentioned above, where people work together on some but not all issues? That's more or less exactly what the Obama administration is about. It isn't an exclusion of hated opponents, a condemnation of outsiders by those in power, or even a takeover of government by the left. It is one of the ironies of this campaign that the Senate's greatest moderate in recent memory campaigned against a candidate identified with a fringe, only to have the roles reversed on the campaign trail. Obama won the election by a majority of voters not because this nation has become the ideological equivalent of San Fransisco, but because Obama's appeals, which endeared him to the left, are fundamentally centrist.

Leftist doctrine has, for the past century and a half, focused on competing interests within a society. Marxism, Labour, and the general confusion of class and nationality have played out over the past century to constitute a left that, while it has some popular appeal, cannot decide what to do when in power. In France in the 1930s, the Left achieved an electoral victory at the exact smae time all of Europe was afraid of both fascism and Stalin, and the left was too divided to let itself act as a party of rule. These divisions, inherent in notions of "class warfare" and echoed in such modern times by John Edwards' "Two Americas" speech, give the left its fighting words, but they also drive it away from being acceptable as a party of rule. Obama, from his very first appearance in the media spotlight, has focused on "One America". His notion of hope comes across as leftist because it involves reconciliation - such strange events have driven our nation to see diplomacy, talking to people we disagree with, and earnest attempts at working together for the benefit of all as leftist fantasies, left over from the 1960s. This misrepresents the left of the sixties and it misrepresents the left of now - both have widely differing views on what government should or shouldn't do, and I'm pleased to say that, 38 years after that decade ended, the left in the United States is able to position itself as a party of rule.

It's taken a long time for this, and it's required that most fundamental of compromises - ideals as a driving impulse, instead of being the straightforward rule of government. This is realism, this is pragmatism, and this is inching towards the Center. The center-left became popularized under Clinton and Tony Blair, but they are not so much leftists as real-mild-rightists. They made being identified with the left acceptable, but for all their strengths they lived scared of being seen as weak, as compromising, and as unfit to rule. Clinton, especially, faced the controversy of moral weakness, and his actions almost certainly added a decade to the lifespan of the religious right in US politics. But he did prove that a democrat, a person on the left, could both have that party and govern from the center.

Obama, as outlined wonderfully by fivethirtyeight, has a progressive agenda, with many items that are near and dear to the left and the far left. "But Kelsey," you thousands of readers clamor, "haven't you been saying Obama is a centrist?" Well, yes, yes I have, and you are all astute observers. So here's the big qualifier - the United States, as is, doesn't have a center. We have two points (or parties), both off center, around which voters tend to congregate. The battle for undecideds is so fierce because there is no party permanently camped out in the center - candidates aiming towards the middle have to moderate their views or open the appeal of their candidate beyond sticking on a certain pole. The battle for the loyal, on the other hand, is about convincing polarized voters that their guy this time is really much closer to the far side of the spectrum than they are to the center. This works, to some extent, for the winner-take-all system that is US politics. In other countries with parliaments and governments of coalitions, however, we see something very different. We see a center party, or center-left and center-right parties, or a center-christian party, and these will almost always be part of the ruling coalitions. Not entirely ideologically pure, but they get the job done, and they have, at their very core, a willingness to incorporate some ideas of others with their broad schemes. McCain, as a Senator, represented a clear example of the "across the aisle" spirit that pervades parties of or around the center.

Obama, alternatively, has made his rhetoric his centrist appeal. And he's done more than that - by inviting Rick Warren to the inauguration, he not only clearly sets himself apart from the left (or at least, those parts of the left that find this unforgivable), he also shows the United States where the center is. It's vague right now, and while it disagrees hugely on some issues (again LGBT and Choice), Obama is trying very clearly to connect the center in US politics to social justice. It's a bold move, and one that Obama has certainly taken flak for, but it has done something almost unthinkable - the evangelicals, the ones that elected W twice, the ones that gave Palin her moment and momentum, have found something to agree on with the President. It's allowed the intersection of religion and politics to not be dominated by the Religious Right, and its made the way possible for more openness in dialog. There are consequences for being in the center - every side gets to take pot-shots, and gets to pick more ideologically pure successors. But the center holds because it is where the voters are, and if Obama can use this almost-unprecedented opportunity for reconciliation (unlike that squandered, post-Civil War attempt), he can create a reliable center in US politics, longer-lived than the New Deal coalition, and he can place that center firmly on the left. It will take skill and careful manuevering. And it will take the inclusion of religious moderates and religious liberals. And it will come dangerously close to betraying that ideological purity we're all so fond of. But its doable, and it is a necessity for this nation.


1 comment:

juxtaposer said...

Reconciliation is hard work and it is personal work, but I believe cultural change can happen one committed person at a time, especially when what is required of us is modeled so concretely by the President-elect.