War(ren) of Words

Vitriol over Rick Warren misses the broader point

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.

Obama the sellout! Obama the ingrate! Obama the betrayer! “I actually trusted the guy,” wrote the blogger John Aravosis. “I know, stupid me.”

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.

So if we’re truly going to have a conversation with each other, and if we’re going to engage in respectful debate, we’re going to have to get better at—and much more comfortable with—compromising. Those who voted for Obama, in particular, are going to have to get used to the idea that just because their guy won doesn’t make their opinions automatically more valid than those who voted for the guy who lost. And all of us are going to have to stop being so afraid of ideas themselves. As Joe Klein noted on Time’s Swampland blog, Warren’s invocation “will have zero—repeat, zero—impact on the policies of the Obama Administration.” But it may, he continued,

do some good, especially if it gives pause to all those people who think that I—and the crypto-Muslim Barack Obama—are going to hell…If it causes those folks to give the new President just the slightest credit for appreciating their worldview, if it causes them to give him the benefit of the doubt on controversial stuff like talking to the Iranians or universal health insurance, then it’s worth it. If it causes evangelicals to say, “Well, he’s not demonizing us, maybe we shouldn’t demonize him,” it’s worth it. If it makes Rush Limbaugh’s toxic blather about our next President seem even the slightest bit ridiculous and over-the-top to his idiot legion of ditto heads, it’s worth it.

So. Enough, please, of the indignation at Obama. There’ll be time for it, I’m sure—all politicians will disappoint their constituents sooner or later—but as far as Warren’s selection is concerned, such vitriol misses the broader point. We’ve elected ourselves a president who, by most indications, doesn’t see himself as beholden to individual groups or movements. That is rare, and to be celebrated. In choosing Warren to have a ceremonial role at his inauguration, Obama is starting, at least, to live up to the promise he made on the night he was elected to office:

In this country, we rise or fall as one nation, as one people. Let’s resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.

Let’s remember that it was a man from this state who first carried the banner of the Republican Party to the White House, a party founded on the values of self-reliance and individual liberty and national unity.

Those are values that we all share. And while the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress.

As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, we are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.

And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn, I may not have won your vote tonight, but I hear your voices. I need your help. And I will be your president, too.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.