Monday, December 22, 2008

Obama's Betrayal

Barack Obama has selected Rick Warren, a right-wing fundamentalist minister who opposes gay rights and has likened homosexuality to incest and pedophilia, to deliver the invocation at the presidential inauguration on January 20. The reaction to this appalling and stupid decision has been disturbingly muted. The New York Times ran a news story on the controversy on Saturday, but to this point the Times' editorial page has not seen fit to write anything about Obama's terrible decision nor to publish a guest op-ed on the subject. Even the liberal talk show hosts on MSNBC have had a difficult time finding guests who do not either (1) describe Warren as somehow "moderate" because he is not as awful as some others on the Religious Right, (2) defend Obama's decision as a wise effort to "reach out" to religious conservatives, and/or (3) dismiss calls for Obama to rescind the invitation as pointless and naive. While Obama has certainly shown his ability in the past to change his positions when the political winds change, therefore, there is no reason to believe at this point that what should be his first political crisis is even causing him mild discomfort. That is regrettable, because this should end the honeymoon before it begins.

The claim that Warren is somehow a moderate is based on setting the bar for moderation so low as to drain the concept of any meaning. He apparently believes that global warming is happening and is probably caused by humans, and he has taken a relatively humane position on HIV/AIDS. Great. This is certainly not what we have come to expect from the better-known fundamentalist ministers, but it is hardly a sign of being anywhere near the middle of the road. Another supposed bit of evidence that Warren is "reasonable": "[U]nlike many other evangelical pastors, Mr. Warren had not devoted as much time or effort in support of Proposition 8, a measure on the California ballot in November that amended the State Constitution to ban same-sex marriage." Of course, he did support Prop 8. Moreover, he will not allow gays (even gays who do not want to marry their partners) to join his church unless they "repent of their homosexual lifestyle." Finally, in an interview after Obama's announcement (excerpted in this clip) -- when he had reason to be especially careful with his words while speaking to the mainstream media -- he explained his opposition to homosexuality by claiming that wanting to have multiple sexual partners is a sign of immaturity and that people need to be willing to endure "delayed gratification." This is nothing more than the old insult of conflating being gay with being sexually insatiable and uncontrollable. In addition, this non-explanation ought, if taken seriously, to lead to his supporting those who would like to marry. Sadly, of course, it does not.

This is a terrible decision, but is it really a betrayal? Absolutely. We are not talking about inviting Warren to be one of the participants in some kind of presidential conference on religion or social issues designed to bring together diverse voices across the spectrum and to look for common ground. This is the religious invocation at the beginning of the celebration of the inauguration of the first African-American President of the United States, a position that puts Warren's face at the forefront of the proceedings. Obama's choice of Warren thus finds the new president celebrating one of the highest achievements of the civil rights movement by conferring a highly visible role on a man who is on the wrong side of the next great civil rights battle. It does so, moreover, in the immediate aftermath of the passage of Prop 8 in Warren's home state. Had that measure failed, one might imagine (though I still would not support) giving someone like Warren a small role in the inaugural festivities on the theory that one should be gracious in victory. It did not fail, however, and it is hardly enough that Warren did not support Prop 8 quite as much as some of his colleagues did.

The most obvious parallels to Obama's betrayal are the don't-ask-don't-tell policy to which Bill Clinton agreed early in his presidency and Clinton's signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) a few years later. In each of those cases, however, there were at least some defensible strategic excuses for Clinton's actions. With don't-ask-don't-tell, Clinton was facing a mutiny from conservative Democrats, and he (tragically but characteristically) chose not to fight that fight. It should be obvious that no one (and certainly no one in his party) was going to jump ship if Obama did not award the invocation slot at the inauguration to Warren. Obama dropped this bomb without any public pressure at all on him to do so. With DOMA, Clinton made a terrible decision to sign intolerance into law while he was running for re-election. He did so in the face of a highly energized new Republican majority in Congress, and he cynically calculated that he would rather not fight for gay rights and possibly lose both that fight and his own re-election. Again, his decision was wrong, but the contrast with Obama's decision here is stark.

Maybe there is some solace in the fact that there is no policy decision at stake here, that this is entirely symbolic and can be quickly forgotten. It is precisely because it is symbolic, however, that this matters so much. Faced with choices on how to set the tone for his administration and what many had expected to be a definitive break from the intolerance of the Bush years and the rank opportunism of the Clinton years, Obama has chosen to open the festivities by giving over the stage to an agent of intolerance. Compared to the many disappointments for which Obama was already getting so much slack -- his many uninspired choices for his cabinet, to say nothing of his support for the new surveillance bill during the campaign -- this is, as I stated above, stupid and appalling.

It is possible that Obama has made this decision in the affirmative hope that he will score political points by betraying part of his base. Maybe being "transformative" and "post-partisan" really is the same thing as Clintonian triangulation and the cynical politics of taking one's strongest supporters for granted. If, as part of some larger political strategy, he actually wanted to enrage people who never imagined that he could be this cynical, one can only say: Mission accomplished.

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan