If you see this comment there should be an image displayed with this section Until last week, the most important and most famous man of the cloth with whom Barack Obama was associated was the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, his longtime pastor from Chicago's South Side. Today, that distinction belongs to the Reverend Rick Warren, best-selling evangelical author (The Purpose Driven Life) and pastor of Saddleback Church, thanks to Obama's inviting him to deliver the invocation at the Inauguration. Talk about growing in office! Obama's growing even before he assumes office.
Is this smart politics on Obama's part? Sure. Does it mean Obama has studied the mistakes of his predecessors, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton? Probably. Obama may have learned from their examples that, even though everyone says the economic crisis has put social issues on a far back burner, mishandling those issues can severely damage one's presidency: Recall gays in the military under Clinton and the IRS ruling on Christian schools under Carter.
If Obama's selection of Warren is smart politics, it's of a piece with four years of smart politics. In his 2004 Democratic Convention speech, with his statement that "We worship an awesome God in the blue states," Obama tried to reassure red-state awesome-God-worshipers about the Democratic party. Indeed, he has generally gone out of his way not to disparage social conservatives. He knows--better than many Republicans--that social conservatism is the strongest political force on the right.
So social conservatives may want to respond with some smart politics of their own. They might try taking Obama at his word. He's for overturning Don't Ask, Don't Tell--but he's also concerned about the military's smooth functioning. Social conservatives could offer to join a bipartisan commission to study how the policy has been working and to consider alternatives--asking for assurances up front that Obama isn't dogmatically committed to the conclusion that there's nothing problematic about open gays serving anywhere and everywhere in the military.
Similarly, Obama has said he wants to reduce the number of abortions. Maybe pro-lifers should offer to work with him on this. He and the Democratic Congress are going to try to funnel gushers of money to Planned Parenthood. How about some money for crisis pregnancy centers? Obama says he's not hostile to faith-based initiatives. Social conservatives might offer to work with him to make sure his ACLU-type appointees don't inadvertently--contrary to Obama's wishes--shut down many of those fine programs.
No conservative should kid himself about what the Obama administration is going to be like. Many of its key policies will be anathema to social conservatives. But social conservatives need to persuade some social moderates, and social undecideds, and social conflicteds, and social uncertains of the reasonableness of conservative concerns, and the sincerity of conservatives' claims that they seek progress in these areas, not merely conflict. There will be plenty of occasions to draw lines with the Obama administration. For now, it might be a good idea to offer a few olive branches to Obama as well.
And the selection of Rick Warren may turn out to have significance beyond short-term political maneuvering. One can see this from the hysteria on the left and among gay activists. They sense that Obama isn't willing to sign on to their campaign to delegitimize, to cast out beyond the pale of polite society, anyone who opposes same-sex marriage--and in particular, anyone (like Warren) who supported Proposition 8 in California, the initiative that overturned the California Supreme Court's legalization of same-sex marriage.
The assault on Prop 8 supporters has been extraordinary in its mean-spiritedness and extremism--but the left knows what it's doing. The purpose has been to intimidate people with an opposing point of view from defending their position. To be against same-sex marriage, even against the judicial imposition of same-sex marriage, is to be a bigot. As one leftwinger said on CNN, Warren is a "hatemonger" comparable to "the grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan." Or, as the Human Rights Campaign's Brad Luna told Byron York of National Review, dismissing the fact that the benediction will be delivered by the Reverend Joseph Lowery, who is more friendly to gay marriage: "I don't think any Jewish Americans would feel much comfort in knowing that an anti-Semite is starting the inauguration with an invocation, but we're going to end it with a rabbi." So the claim is, opposing same-sex marriage is tantamount to being a racist or an anti-Semite.
Making that charge is at the heart of the agenda of the gay lobby. They don't want to debate same-sex marriage. They want to demonize its opponents. Ironically, Lowery himself, who is a (somewhat equivocal) supporter of gay marriage, refuses to equate the gay rights and the civil rights movements: "Homosexuals as a people have never been enslaved because of their sexual orientation," he told the Associated Press. "They may have been scorned; they may have been discriminated against. But they've never been enslaved and declared less than human."
And, one could add, gender and sex are at least potentially morally relevant in a way a decent society will not allow skin color to be. Skin color is skin deep. Gender and sex are more complicated--which is why even in our "enlightened" age, all distinctions based on gender and sexual orientation haven't collapsed.
God knows, Obama isn't going to be out there defending such distinctions, or explaining which are reasonable and which aren't. And it's certain Obama is going to govern as a pro-abortion rights, not-particularly-pro-traditional-family, social liberal. But he at least seems open to a discussion of these issues. And that leaves some political space for social conservatives to continue making their case over the next few years.
Conservatives have to be ready to stand up for themselves--and for each other--if and when the left comes at them from the academy, Hollywood, and the media. Obama's invitation to Rick Warren doesn't mean his administration won't put a heavy thumb on the left side of the scale in our cultural conflicts. It doesn't even mean that organs of the federal government, over which Obama will of course be presiding, won't try to stifle nonconforming opinions. But the Warren invitation means that one can at least appeal to Obama's own precedent against suppressing out-of-favor views.
The left senses that the invitation to Rick Warren is a blow to their effort to establish a soft tyranny of "correct" opinion, to enforce society-wide political orthodoxy, on social issues. They're right. This isn't the time for conservatives to snipe at Obama's motives. It's time to welcome him into the American mainstream, to salute the president-elect's progress from Reverends Wright to Warren.