Back when President-elect Barack Obama was merely presidential candidate Barack Obama, he made, as all politicians do, several promises to the electorate. The most transcendent of these was, of course—all together, now—change. Change, specifically, from the heated partisan rhetoric that, most Americans agree, has sullied the quality of our discourse and compromised the efficacy of our political system. Change from everyone’s favorite political bugaboo, The Politics of the Past. Change from where we are to where we can go from here.
Obama followed through on that promise yesterday when he announced that Rick Warren—celebrity pastor and, most recently, Prop 8 advocate—would deliver the invocation at Obama’s inaugural.
And People. Are. Really. Pissed.
I disagree with many of Warren’s beliefs. I agree with some others. But: It doesn’t really matter what I think of Warren, or, for that matter, what you think of Warren. It matters what we—the transcendent, collective We—all think of Warren. And what, in regards to the pastor’s most recent lightning rod, we all think about gay marriage. Like it or not, according to recent Pew polling, 49 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage. (Our president- and vice-president-elect are, by the way, among them.) And, for that matter, only 39 percent support gay marriage. It’s that ratio that, on inauguration day, matters. Because the inauguration is a day not just for individual Americans, but also, and more so, for America—a day about the ideas that unite us, about the experiment we’re all a part of, about our differences as well as our commonalities. And, more to the point, about the fact that the American idea is based on the fact that differences need not become divisions.
“It is difficult to comprehend how our president-elect, who has been so spot on in nearly every political move and gesture, could fail to grasp the symbolism of inviting an anti-gay theologian to deliver his inaugural invocation,” Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese declared in a Washington Post op-ed today. “And the Obama campaign’s response to the anger about this decision? Hey, we’re also bringing a gay marching band. You know how the gays love a parade.”
First, that wasn’t really their response. Second, when Solmonese writes that the choice of Warren for the inaugural invocation “makes us uncertain about this exciting, young president-elect who has said repeatedly that we are part of his America, too,” one can’t help recall Obama’s record—and the fact that he’s been, throughout the campaign, up-front about not supporting gay marriage. (He supports civil unions.) The shock/indignation/outrage we’re witnessing today may be genuine, but, for that, it’s also overdue. It seems, in short, a specimen more of knee-jerk umbrage than true surprise.
Hey, commentators: If we’re going to transcend partisan rancor, we’re going to have to do more than pay lip service to transcending partisan rancor. We’re going to have to move beyond the impulse toward knee-jerk partisanship—his views offend me! I’m pissed! I’m going to tell everyone just how pissed I am!—and toward conciliation. We’re going to have to re-draw the line between tolerance and conviction when it comes to each others’ deeply held beliefs.
That’s not to disparage the passion of individual conviction: The only thing worse than our current partisan antipathy would be bipartisan apathy. But it is to say that, in this republic of ours, my individual views—no matter how flagrantly and patently superior, obviously, they may be—count just as much as yours. If we’re going to have the National Conversation everyone claims to want, we’re going to have to be comfortable hearing—and, yes, tolerating—views that differ from our own. Even if those views make us want to tear our hair out and scream at the top of our lungs. That’s the deal democracy makes with itself.