Since my spectrum post didn't get many comments, you've forced me to talk about Rick Warren. And while I'm not exactly a fan of this guy, I don't think inviting him to give the invocation is a big deal. Ready to comment now? I thought so.
On one level, no one should be surprised by this move. Obama consistently reached out to evangelicals throughout the campaign. He also quite deliberately avoided hot button cultural issues that galvanize these voters. The invitation to Warren is consistent with a long pattern of outreach. That said, the mere fact that he's reached out in the past doesn't necessarily mean that this particular invite is a good idea.
Obviously, Prop 8 complicates things. If the wounds of Prop 8 weren't so raw, I think the invite would be a no-brainer good idea. But as Ed Kilgore astutely observes, Prop 8 has radicalized progressives. It's a little bit like the backlash that followed the Fugitive Slave Act. It was one thing to know that slavery existed in some faraway land. But the FSA forced people who were already free to be captured and sent back to slavery. Seeing freemen seized on the streets of Boston radicalized the North in a new kind of way (I have an old old post on this). Perhaps the analogy is strained -- but I think something similar has happened with Prop 8. California reached in and destroyed existing marriages -- and now, something has changed.
And I don't mean to discount that anger at all. It's well-deserved, and Rick Warren deserves plenty of blame. But all that said, it's important not to let blinding anger obscure the larger long-term political benefits of Obama's outreach. Nixon famously said you can't ignore a billion people. That logic applies here too. More on that below.
The thing that animates me -- that's led me to clock in many a long hour typing blog posts for some five years now -- is a deeply-held belief that things would be better if progressives were running the country. Simply put, a governing progressive majority would make the country and the world better in numerous concrete ways. That's what I believe. And I also believe that Obama's invitation to Warren -- like his nomination of less-progressive people like Clinton and Gates -- furthers this goal over the long term.
Admittedly, these tacks to the center could also be signs that he isn't serious about fighting for a permanent progressive majority. As I explained in an earlier post, the real question is whether you believe in Obama. If you think he's willing and able to push for these goals, then using "centrist" vessels is a very savvy move. If you think he won't, then it's not.
Getting back to Warren, I think Obama's courtship could pay major long-term dividends, assuming Obama is committed to pushing for progressive goals (including LGBT equality). There are a lot of evangelicals in the country. And carving out just a slice of them would cripple the GOP.
And at present, there's a battle going on within the evangelical community -- a crossroads. That's what people are overlooking. Specifically, they're overlooking the extent to which Warren (literally and symbolically) is challenging an evangelical leadership status quo that is extremely hostile to Democrats. A commenter at the indispensable Balloon Juice notes:
If you followed the internal politics of evangelical and fundamentalist leaders, you’d see this for what it is—not an elevation of Warren, but a slap in the face of the old guard leaders like Dobson and LaHaye. They’ve been fighting to see who gets to be the spokesman for the movement, and lately it’s been a tie. Obama just broke it.
And let’s be clear, there is a difference between those groups. Warren may not be progressive on gay rights, but he’s been out front on a number of issues of global justice—traveling from Davos to Damascus, and working hard to get rank-and-file evangelicals invested in “creation care” environmentalism and the fight against global HIV/AIDS.
Obama isn't going to cause evangelicals to start loving abortion rights or gay marriage. But what he could maybe accomplish is to help elevate a leader whose primary mission in life isn't defeating and vilifying Democrats. That's all Dobson and Perkins have -- they commodify outrages and liberal hatred, and that's what they sell (at a nice profit). Warren, despite his flaws, devotes more energy to doing good things -- things that secular progressives could even coalition with him on.
Personally, I'd rather see a greater chunk of evangelical money going to fight AIDS than to defeat Democratic candidates. Obama's courtship of Warren could make that happen. Also, if the evangelical leadership shifts, young evangelicals wouldn't grow up hearing how awful Democrats are. Instead, they would grow up hearing how important it is to do good in the world. And without that incessant demonizing, younger evangelicals might eventually drift over to the progressive camp, which is far more consistent with their views on poverty, the environment, etc.
In short, Obama's invitation is extremely ambitious -- FDR or Nixon-level ambitious. He's trying to wedge one of the other side's key coalition groups and assemble a new permanent coalition (or at least one that attracts less incoming fire). With that new coalition in place, the legislative environment for LGBT rights will much more conducive to progress.
None of this is to say that people shouldn't be mad at Warren, or frustrated with the selection. And I'm not asking anyone to "wait" for anything, especially marriage rights. But politics is the art of the gray -- there are no black and white issues. And so it's premature to be castigating Obama for this.