I thought Frank Rich’s response to the Rick Warren controversy was very strange. In the New York Times, Rich wrote that asking Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration “was a conscious–and glib–decision by Obama to spend political capital. It was made with the certitude that a leader with a mandate can do no wrong.” It was, Rich said, rather like George W. Bush’s high-handed dismissal of moderate and liberal voters at the outset of his administration. And “we all know how that turned out.”
I would have thought exactly the opposite. Obama seeks to obtain political capital by inviting a conservative evangelical to speak at his inaugural, thus reassuring Americans who think that the President Elect is a Muslim, or else secular and hyper-liberal. He might also hope to peel some conservative voters away from the Republican coalition. Far from arrogant or spendthrift, this was a rather calculated, cautious, and defensive political move. The people it might offend (i.e., supporters of gay rights) are outnumbered by the people it might attract; and more to the point, the former have nowhere else to go, whereas the latter are potential swing voters. If I were criticizing Obama, I would assail him for unprincipled caution rather than arrogance.
My actual views are more ambivalent. I do understand that it’s hurtful to give a ceremonial role at a public event to a person who is not only against gay marriage, but who compares legalizing it to legalizing incest. I suppose a rough equivalent would be an anti-Semitic speaker–but gays are far more victimized by discrimination and violence than Jews are in modern America. So that’s a big argument against inviting Rick Warren.
On the other hand:
1. The political advantages are considerable, since evangelicals really could splinter, and liberals could pick up their votes. The Bible is not for tax cuts; the Bible is for stewardship, education, and the poor.
2. Warren used words about gay marriage that are indefensible (and that he apparently regrets), but his actual position cannot be considered beyond the pale. Most Americans share that position. Warren also shares with most Americans the opinion that religious scriptures are authoritative. The Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are pretty strongly against gay marriage. I could make a theological argument in favor of gay marriage, basing my position on a certain reading of the whole biblical canon. That reading would be tendentious, although sincere. I think Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor, is entitled to his more traditional and more straightforward reading of a text that he is entitled to use as his guide.
3. This invitation has hurt people, and I am sorry about that. It has also opened some healthy conversations, such as the one between Rick Warren and Melissa Etheridge. Bishop Gene Robinson and others have noted that an invocation is not a dialog or a deliberation. Robinson said, “I’m all for Rick Warren being at the table, … but we’re talking about putting someone up front and center at what will be the most-watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know.” I would respond that Warren shouldn’t be excluded for praying to the wrong God (if that even makes sense); and that asking him to speak was an indirect way of bringing him to the table on this issue.
There are several kinds of politics at work here. Gays are rightly trying to develop a public identity and asking for it to be favorably received. From the perspective of that “politics of identity and recognition,” Warren’s invitation is harmful. Meanwhile, Obama is trying to develop and expand social programs. For that “politics of distribution,” the Warren invitation is smart. And various people are discussing a controversial issue: gay marriage. The Warren invitation is a spur to that “politics of deliberation.” Much depends on which we think is most important. It’s not surprising that Frank Rich would opt for the first choice, since he is an almost perfect representative of liberal identity politics. What I do find surprising is his failure even to notice the other kinds of politics in this case.