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Obama's strange bedfellow

The political risks of reconciliation

We’ve posed this question before:

Is it feasible to believe that Barack Obama can reach across the cultural divide, in the spirit of reconciliation, without undercutting core progressive principles and infuriating his own supporters?

The answer is, no. But Obama doesn’t seem perturbed by the prospect of angering his base. Clearly, in the interest of building bridges and establishing a nonpartisan tone, he considers such fallout to be acceptable collateral damage.

Which certainly explains why he has chosen pastor Rick Warren, a Christian conservative leader and adamant foe of gay marriage and stem cell research, to deliver the Inauguration Day invocation.

This is the same Rick Warren who, notwithstanding his affable manner, considers abortion rights, gay rights, and stem cell research to be immoral issues and therefore “non-negotiable.” This is the same guy who has equated gay marriage with polygamy, child molestation, and incest; and who supported the November referendum banning gay marriage in California (by contrast, Obama opposed the referendum). In essence, Warren is just a friendlier version of Christian conservative leader James Dobson; they differ mostly on style, not substance.

The choice of Warren was announced yesterday; not without reason, prominent gay activists quickly went berserk. Joe Solomonese, president of the Washington-based Human Rights Campaign, wrote Obama a letter: “You have tarnished the view that (gay people) have a place at your table…Rev. Warren is not a moderate pastor who is trying to bring all sides together. Instead, Rev. Warren has often played the role of general in the cultural war.”

And Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, characterized Obama’s decision as “a slap in the faces of the millions of (gay) voters who so enthusiastically supported him…This tone-deafness to our concerns must not be tolerated. We have just endured eight years of endless assaults on our dignity and equality from a president beholden to bigoted conservative Christians. The election was supposed to have ended that era. It appears otherwise.”

But gay leaders are not the only people who feel betrayed. People for the American Way, a longtime Washington group that tracks the religious right, said in a statement that the decision to have Warren deliver the invocation is “a grave disappointment” that “further elevates someone who has in recent weeks actively promoted legalized discrimination and denigrated the lives and relationships of millions of Americans.” (Meanwhile, one liberal blogger dismissed Warren as "James Dobson in Dr. Phil's goatee.")

It’s tempting to simply ignore this episode; after all, does it really matter who delivers the Inaugural invocation? It’s just a symbolic gesture, and it hardly means that Obama will conspire with Warren on substantive policy-making. On the other hand, Obama himself has argued persuasively that words do matter. Here are some of Warren’s words, uttered in opposition to gay marriage:

“It is a moral issue that God has spoken clearly about…I’m opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.”

And here are some words from a recent interview, sort of akin to how whites talked 50 years ago, when they boasted that they knew some Negroes:

“I have many gay friends. I’ve eaten dinner in gay homes. No church has probably done more for people with AIDS than Saddleback Church. (Wife) Kay and I gave given millions of dollars…helping people who got AIDS through gay relationships. So they can’t accuse me of homophobia.”

By choosing Warren, it’s clear what message Obama is trying to send. He wants to foster more dialogue with ideological opponents (Warren is open to talking about global warming), and perhaps to forge closer ties between Democrats and evangelical Christians. Indeed, at a press conference this morning, he said: "It is important for America to come together even though we may have disagreements on some social issues." But by choosing Warren to bless his historic Inaugural, he is essentially blessing Warren – in essence, vetting Warren as a mainstream moderate in front of a mass television audience.

And that brings us full circle: Will there come a point when Obama risks building one bridge too far?