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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

"What Do You Mean, 'We?'"

I'd been meaning to write for a while about this comment in the New Yorker by Hendrik Hertzberg discussing the passage of Proposition 8.  I don't find the New Yorker's political commentary terribly useful, and this one was no exception, but I found its framing interesting.  Hertzberg assails the Mormon Church for funding and supporting the effort to pass Proposition 8, arguing that a church that "was the world's most notorious proponent of startlingly unconventional forms of wedded bliss [should] be a little reticent aout issuing orders to the rest of humanity specifying exactly who should be legally entitled to marry whom."  (He mentions that the Church has long since rejected plural marriage, but just in passing and without much conviction or any seeming understanding that its position on these issues might have changed drastically in a century.)  He effectively blames the Church for the passage of the proposition.

On the other hand, he assails those "conservative commentators" who "dwelt lingeringly" on the substantial black turnout in favor of Prop. 8 -- some 70 percent of California's African-American voters supported the proposition.  He disdains any efforts to "blame" blacks for the outcome, saying that the initiative would have passed, "barely," even without their vote.  Obviously, there is at least as good a case to me made that significant black support for Prop. 8 was crucial, if not necessary, to the proposition's passage as there is that Mormon funding was crucial to its passage.  And yet, Hertzberg focuses his fire on the Mormons and conspicuously holds it with respect to African-American voters.  

Clearly a substantial part of his goal here is to hold together a fragile liberal political coalition; and if that means shading the truth as he needs to, so be it.  But am I wrong to detect a hint of condescension, a certain de-haut-en-bas quality, to his argument?  By negating the black influence on the initative's passage, does he not ultimately try to see African-Americans only as he wants to see them, without bothering or caring enough to see them as a whole, in all their diverse views, some of which include a strong strain of religious conservatism?  Do progressives (and others) really care about a people if they make no attempt to understand them fully, even where some of their views diverge from what they want to imagine about them?

I am reminded of this as I read the reactions to President-elect Obama's choice of Rick Warren to give the the invocation at his inauguration.  

Warren has taken a strong stand on caring for those with HIV and AIDS, and he believes in equal civil rights for gays and lesbians, including hospital visiting rights and so on.  He also believes that religious conservatives' focus on gays and lesbians is misguided, saying that divorce is a grave issue, but that "we always love to talk about other sins more than ours."  But he unquestionably does think homosexual conduct is a sin and has said so in strong terms, and he supports neither same-sex marriage nor same-sex civil unions.  (For more detail, see here.)  

Neil Buchanan, writing at Dorf on Law, calls Obama's invitation to Warren "Obama's betrayal," the decision "appalling and stupid," and says this "should be his first political crisis."  (This last point is interesting, because he later acknowledges that Bill Clinton's focus on don't ask-don't tell was a failure, although he does not discuss the ways in which advancing the issue so early in his presidency also derailed his efforts in a number of other policy areas.)  He says Obama has "giv[en] over the stage to an agent of intolerance," and, echoing commentators elsewhere, suggests that Obama's decision must have been a tactical and not a heartfelt one.

Let me say that although I think Buchanan's writing is overheated, I think it is perfectly acceptable to deplore Obama's invitation to Warren.  I think it is probably wrong to call Warren "intolerant," unless you think that any opposition to same-sex marriage or civil unions is intolerant in and of itself and that no amount of other views about the civil rights of gays and lesbians can diminish that.  Warren strikes me as both tolerant of gays and lesbians, in the sense that he recognizes them as full human beings entitled to civil rights and to make their own choices as to whom to love, and implacably and vocally opposed to conduct that he thinks is a sin. 

But there is no reason that anyone, straight or gay, cannot decide that this view alone is enough to merit condemning Warren, and condemning Obama for inviting him.  I am perfectly content to know and love people who believe, however sorrowfully, that Jews are as capable as anyone else of great virtue in this life but condemned to perdition in the next.  But if Obama had invited to give the invocation someone who believed that Jews are fine people but that they should be deprived of the right to marry, well, my views might be a little different.  Perhaps, I say seriously, this is a shortcoming on my part; or perhaps it is a natural consequence of the fact that gay rights are still in the realm of contestation, making it somewhat less difficult to treat with people who hold opposing views on this issue, while civil rights for Jews are no longer contestable in our society.  In any event, as I say, people are well within their rights to reject Warren's views on gay rights, and to deplore his invitation to give the invocation.  Although I do not, I think it is a perfectly respectable position.

What I find interesting about all this, though, is the degree to which it reflects a desire to turn Obama into something other than he is: to see in him a political progressive in all ways and on all issues.  This is especially evident in the refusals to see Obama's decision as anything other than a tactical one and not a sincere one.  And I wonder if it does not bespeak something of the same dynamic that we saw in Hertzberg's commentary. 

After all, who did Obama "betray?"  Progressives?  Perhaps.  But did he betray African-Americans, who have every bit as much at stake in this inauguration and, as the California vote suggests, include among their diverse views many people who are deeply religious and opposed to full same-sex rights?  Did he betray himself?  After all, he shares many of those religious views, including some socially conservative views, and himself opposes same-sex marriage.  Why is it impossible to believe that Obama made a conscious choice that, whether or not it contained strategic elements, also is sincere and heartfelt?  Perhaps he disagrees with Warren on some issues but also believes Warren is a good man; perhaps he dislikes some of Warren's rhetoric on same-sex issues but broadly shares his view that gays and lesbians should enjoy civil rights but not marriage rights.  And perhaps, in this, he is squarely in the mainstream of not only American thought, but specifically religious and/or black American thought.

None of this should be a surprise.  For all his progressive political views, Obama has been equally clear on the religious roots of much of his thinking and that some of those views are what we would commonly describe as conservative.  So it is interesting that people describe him as engaging in an act of betrayal, rather than as engaging in an act of keeping faith; and it is passing interesting that they try to describe his actions only in strategic terms and not as a sincere move. 

Here I see the link between Hertzberg's comment and the present controversy.  I think John McWhorter is right to argue that  this moment "forces us to attend yet again to the sometimes discomfitingly partial overlap between Blue American bona fides and black authenticity."  McWhorter concludes, "Overall, expecting Obama to treat social conservatism as beyond the pale proposes that Obama dismiss a frame of reference typical, whether many of us like it or not, of legions of the people we're supposed to be so excited about including in the American fabric.  Black he is not, but at the inauguration ceremony next month, Rick Warren will be every bit as much in line with the black American soul as [fellow inaugural performer] Aretha Franklin."  

As I say, people are welcome to oppose Obama's choice on this issue; there is nothing disreputable about such a position.  But they should not be surprised by his choice; and if they are, and persist in seeing it as nothing more than a calculated decision, perhaps they should make a greater effort to understand Obama as a man in full, including one with deeply religious views; and perhaps they should reflect on the ways in which both Obama's constituencies and some members of the progressive fold, including African-Americans, are not just good foot soldiers, but rather are a diverse lot that includes many religiously conservative individuals.  Surely full, equal, and genuine respect demands as much.

(Somewhat un-PC hat tip: Tonto.)                      

Posted by Paul Horwitz on December 23, 2008 at 12:31 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Interesting post re: Rick warren and the inauguration. I wonder, though, if the following statement is overstated: "Obviously, there is at least as good a case to me made that significant black support for Prop. 8 was crucial, if not necessary, to the proposition's passage as there is that Mormon funding was crucial to its passage."

African Americans comprise 6% of California's population. Even if every single one of those African Americans was eligible to vote and indeed voted for Prop 8, their numbers would not have been determinative -- Prop 8's success was due to input from multiple constituencies, including older voters, voters in the interior of the state, and whites. Pointing the finger at blacks simply reinforces the notion that "Black America" is a homophobic monolith (in the same way pointing the finger at the Mormon Church reinforces the notion that all LDS members are wealthy homophobes). This is not the case. Certainly, there is room for consciousness raising in the wake of Prop 8, but it is not just the African American community that is in need of it.

Posted by: anon | Dec 23, 2008 1:10:03 PM

This is one of the most thoughtful pieces of commentary I've read in a long time. Thanks.

Posted by: anon | Dec 23, 2008 1:17:31 PM

"Obama has been equally clear on the religious roots of much of his thinking and that some of those views are what we would commonly describe as conservative."

Has Obama been clear that his argument for rejecting gay marriage is based on conservative religious views? If that is his position, he ought to be willing to state it as such and defend it. And then he ought to provide a non-religious basis for that position. Now some might bristle at the demand for a non-religious justification, but Obama isn't among them. In his own words:

"What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to abortion for religions reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God’s will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all." (Audacity of Hope, p. 219)

To understand Obama "in full," it isn't enough to know and respect that his politics are religiously informed. He is also expressly committed to providing public justifications of his political proposals to those who do not share his religious views. Presumably, we should take Obama at his word about this -- "[s]urely full, equal, and genuine respect demands as much."

Posted by: anon | Dec 24, 2008 12:51:09 AM

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