© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

A (really) new kind of politics

ow32988Okay, okay. OKAY! I keep getting a drip drip drip of emails asking me to weigh in on Obama ‘s decision to invite pastor Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation.

At first I thought it was a strange and galling. Warren is awful on several issues, though admittedly good on several others. Then, with the help of several smart commentators on the left, I began to see it very differently.

It began with the benefit of doubt. The more I observe him and learn about him, the more my opinion climbs regarding Obama’s intellect and values. Since it started quite high, that’s saying something. So when I find myself thinking he’s done something stupid, I have to take a moment to see if he’s actually figured something out that I haven’t yet.

I’m convinced that’s the case with the Warren invitation.

Most of our left-wing chatter about “change” — let’s be honest — has really meant “doing things our way for once.” But Obama and his team are thinking on a whole new level. The answer to the favorite caustic headline on progressive blogs since the Warren invite — some snide version of “THIS is Change We Can Believe In??” — is Yes, dammit, it is!

Every President-elect talks about reaching across the aisle after an election, of “healing the divisions that plague our nation,” blah blah blah. Until now they haven’t been all that serious. Oh, they’d meet with leaders from the other party to repeat their platitudes, appoint a member of the opposing party as Secretary of Feng Shui — but it always stopped at such window-dressing. Until now.

Those of us who’ve obsessively studied this man for the past two years should have seen this coming. When Obama joined the Harvard Law Review, the organization was bitterly divided between a conservative faction called the Federalist Society and…well, everyone else. From his first days on the Review, Obama (in the disbelieving words of a fellow progressive on the Review) “spent time with [members of the Federalists] socially — something I would never do.” And when he became president of the Review, Obama appointed not one, but three Federalists to top editorial positions.

Did he do this because he agreed with them? Hardly. He did it because, as the inelegant but spot-on proverb puts it, he’d rather have them inside the tent pissing out. He was in charge, but he had the confidence to allow everyone a real voice. A real voice. And it’s not just for show — as many of those in his inner circles have noted, he genuinely wants and needs to hear everyone.

Now consider the whole fracas over Obama’s expressed willingness to talk to our enemies, including Ahmadinejad. Conservatives hooted with derision: You’d be endorsing evildoers!

No, liberals replied. It’s essential to build relationships and keep communication open, especially with our enemies. Isn’t that obvious?

But now that our own issues and enemies are involved, we seem not to be able to see the same principle at work. Instead, we liberals hoot: You’re endorsing evildoers!

For all his wrongheadedness on key issues, Rick Warren has shown a willingness to reach across the aisle, to open lines of communication when others have refused, often angering his team in the process. Obama has seized this opening despite their differences. In so doing, he may help moderate evangelical attitudes toward him. By co-opting one of their generals with a gracious gesture of inclusion that goes beyond the usual tokenism, he has quite possibly made it easier to move forward on several fronts. And progress on those fronts matters much more than the opportunity to pack the inaugural moment with partisan purity.

So before we declare ourselves utterly betrayed, let’s at least consider the possibility that the us-vs.-them politics we’re angrily demanding is less helpful in the long run than Obama’s longsighted approach. If the operative root of progressive is progress, I think Obama just may be more progressive than those of us who elected him.

More on Obama’s tenure as president of the Harvard Law Review
An outstanding column by E.J. Dionne on the Warren choice

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This was written on Saturday, 03. January 2009 at 10:47 and was filed under Uncategorized. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. “If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” — Isaac Jaffe, Sports Night

    Aaron Sorkin hits in on the head again.

    Our President-Elect is not only more progressive but smarter than those of us who elected him, just as it should be.

    Comment: AmyS – 03. January 2009 @ 5:40 pm

  2. I dunno that I can agree with you on this one, Dale, though I really want to and wish I could — Rick Warren elevated to national moderator status with the most impeccably credible of the working media elite, to host a major general election presidential debate in his very intolerant church as if spearation of church and state meant nothing anymore, was plenty of olive branch-outreach inclusiveness to me, for this one famously intolerant preacherman, for one president.

    But now the second time around for celebrating him as the best America has to offer, before Obama is even in office for the first time, starts to feel like intolerant church over inclusive state. Again — world without end, amen.

    Snook blogged it here — I do hope we start seeing that real change, instead of just same old-same old deference to white bigots dressed up for lucrative Sunday gigs dominating the public debate and the lives the rest of us would like to lead without their rule. But it getting harder and harder to rationalize myself into um, belief.

    Comment: JJ Ross – 03. January 2009 @ 9:04 pm

  3. Dale, you did it again. I’m reconsidering my grumpiness about Warren. That’s not to say I’m totally over it, and I still toy with the idea of turning my back when Warren offers his prayer (we’re ticketed for the swearing-in!).

    I do, however, hope that we see more language from the Obama administration about the inclusion of faiths other than Christianity, especially those of us who hold no religious faith at all.

    Comment: meanderwithme – 04. January 2009 @ 11:22 am

  4. I had a similar reaction to the news. At first I yelled “WTF” (unabbreviated of course) at my radio, but then I stopped to think about it. I realized that if I want to be included at the table as a progressive secular humanist, then who am I to say that anyone else should be excluded. Yes, Warren is someone who spews out ideas that I find reprehensible, but if we really are to figure out how to work together in this country, we have to work with people who think like he does.

    Comment: Thranil – 05. January 2009 @ 10:16 am

  5. I do, however, hope that we see more language from the Obama administration about the inclusion of faiths other than Christianity, especially those of us who hold no religious faith at all.

    There’s plenty of reason for confidence, not least this:

    Comment: Dale – 05. January 2009 @ 10:39 am

  6. Speaking as one of the Us that this particular Them is aiming at with both barrels (Lesbian mom), I have to disagree with you. This man is not someone who deserves the spotlight. If you have never had someone preaching hate directly at you, telling you your family deserves no rights and no recognition, in fact does not deserve to exist, you probably can’t get the anger that this appointment provides. I notice he isn’t having a KKK member participate in the swearing in, don’t we need to include all hateful views to be truly inclusive? There are some views that should not ever be tolerated and Rick Warren exemplifies them.
    I hope Obama sticks to his word about giving my family equality, but with this pick, I don’t hold out much hope.

    Comment: amwheeler – 06. January 2009 @ 10:28 am

  7. you probably can’t get the anger that this appointment provides.

    I hope I didn’t imply that I don’t get the anger. I certainly do. I too am part of a minority that the Warrens of the world hold in contempt. There’s no need to let go of one’s anger at Warren. As with Ahmadinejad, the question is whether such inclusion is automatically an endorsement of views, or if it can be a smart tactical engagement in order to more effectively combat the views in the long run. Reasonable people clearly differ on this.

    Comment: Dale – 06. January 2009 @ 10:49 am

  8. I see what you’re saying Dale, but it still really bugs me. I’m not angry about Obama chosing him, I’m disappointed. He had a chance here to make a real shift-chosing a religious liberal or liberal leaning moderate to open the inaguration would have gone a long way to taking the spotlight away from the conservative religious leaders that have been the ONLY ones deemed worthy of that spotlight.
    I completely agree with this statement though:
    “Most of our left-wing chatter about “change” — let’s be honest — has really meant “doing things our way for once.” ”
    so in the end, you’ve talked me down. A little.
    -Kelly

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 06. January 2009 @ 3:02 pm

  9. I’m not angry about Obama chosing him, I’m disappointed.

    Maybe the best way I can put my own feelings is this: I’m disappointed that our national life is such that it’s necessary to make this kind of calculus. But in a tactical sense, I’m convinced it is.

    choosing a religious liberal or liberal leaning moderate to open the inauguration would have gone a long way to taking the spotlight away from the conservative religious leaders that have been the ONLY ones deemed worthy of that spotlight.

    What about the benediction, which will be given by Joseph Lowery, a liberal-leaning social justice-oriented moderate and civil rights leader? There is balance there — and given a choice, I’d rather have the inauguration end with Lowery’s side of the balance than with Warren’s. One might even see symbolism in the transition from one to the other…

    Comment: Dale – 06. January 2009 @ 3:30 pm

  10. Good point. I was happy to see Lowery chosen as well. I guess I just wanted him to be the opener because of that whole “doing things our way for once” business!

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 06. January 2009 @ 11:43 pm

  11. […] Like a lot of people who worked hard to elect Barack Obama, the choice of Rick Warren for the Inauguration’s Officiating Minister was upsetting. It was upsetting mostly because we were confronted with our own shortcomings as middle-grounders. I came across a fantastic piece by Harvard Humanist of the Year, Dale McGowan, that gets at the heart of our struggle and gives us a good kick in our righteous pants: Click here to read the piece. […]

    Pingback: site.tinyrevolutionary.com Blog » Blog Archive » Obama, Rick Warren & The Painful Reality of Compromise – 19. January 2009 @ 11:16 pm

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