Thursday, December 18, 2008

More on Warren

Steven Waldman at The Huffington Post thinks Obama's decision to invite religious right megachurch pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration is a wise choice. While recognizing that Warren is a fierce conservative who opposes almost everything Democratic voters believe, Waldman thinks Warren's good works on poverty balance all that out and make him a "bipartisan choice." This kind of triangulation is pure Liebermanism and a perfect example of the conventional wisdom of the Washington pundits' corps, which holds that the Democrats always need to prove their centrism by smacking down their most loyal supporters. Naturally, I think he's one hundred percent wrong.

Reaching out to the far right, especially the religious right, is a waste of time. They will not be appeased by symbols or tokens. They are more likely to view such actions as a sign of weakness and a validation of their importance and strength. The second part of that equation is particularly important. For the last thirty years, the religious right has tried to portray themselves as the standard measure of Christianity in the United States. Most of them no longer use their denominational name and refer to themselves as simply "Christians". That was a brilliant strategic move. First, it underlines the basic claim that they are normal Christians and all others are diverging from their standard. Second, any criticism of them can be framed as attacks on "Christianity" forcing all other Christians into their defensive camp. Third, it forces the press to reinforce their message by constantly describing their extremist message as "what Christians believe." The long term effect has been to convince other Christians to either support their program as good Christians must, or explain why they do not. The great majority of more moderate American Christians have been put on the defensive and essentially silenced.

Obama had a chance to reverse that trend. He could have provided a forum for mainstream Christians. He could have marginalized and silenced the extremists. The religious right is not representative of American Christianity. They are not even representative of evangelical Protestantism. According to Christine Wicker, the religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News, they represent about one third of evangelicals or seven percent of the population. In a futile effort to appease an unappeasable seven percent of the population, Obama has delivered a swift kick to his most faithful supporters and condemned the majority of American Christians to silence and impotence. This is not a wise choice; this is bad strategy, bad politics, and a bad beginning.

Update: There is some evidence that I was correct in my prediction that the extremists of the religious right won't be appeased. Steve Benen at the Washington Monthly quotes some angry letters to Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network. Of course, the compulsive centrists will claim that anything that offends both side of the aisle must be hewing to the golden mean and therefore a good idea. I believe than anything that offends everybody is kind of pointless and, in politics at least, a bad idea.

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