President-elect Barack Obama’s invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation on January 20th deserves something other than just a visceral negative reaction. Warren’s pre-scientific, homophobic views and his church’s exclusion of gays and lesbians from membership have understandably created an uproar of criticism from the progressive community. But we need to reflect not merely on Obama’s tactic for his inaugural ceremony, but on his long-term political strategy.
First, the numbers: in the 2008 elections exit polls suggested that evangelicals made up 23 to 26 percent of all voters. Barack Obama was the choice of 25 to 26 percent of those evangelicals. Here is an interesting map of the evangelical voting breakdown state-by-state. Note the wide variation in Obama’s evangelical totals: in Iowa and MInnesota he even managed to garner 38 percent of the evangelical vote; in Mississippi, only 9 percent.
How can we expect Obama to deal with the evangelicals during the next four years? Let us ponder the question below the break.
(X-posted at Big Orange.)
In terms of simple numbers, the self-described gay, lesbian, and bisexual community is approximately 4 percent of the population. There are of course still a few “Log Cabin Republicans,” and presumably Mary Cheney, Sen. Larry Craig, former Rep. Tom Foley, and Pastor Ted Haggard voted for John McCain, but for the sake of argument, let us assume that essentially all GLBT voters chose to vote for Barack Obama in 2008. Here is the key political point: Obama received more votes from evangelicals than from GLBT voters: a little more than 12 percent of his total came from evangelicals; at most, 7.5 percent of his total came from GLBT voters. Even more important–and this is an absolutely critically important, yet simple, mathematical point–there is very little scope for Obama to obtain any additional support for his progressive agenda or for his eventual reelection from the GLBT community, while some of those evangelicals among the 73 to 74 percent who voted for John McCain (and 78 percent who voted for George W. Bush in 2004) may start to listen to him and be willing to support him next time around.
In 2008 Obama did better among evangelicals by 4 to 5 points than John Kerry did with his approximately 21 percent in 2004, though Obama failed to approach Bill Clinton’s ability to attract as much as 37 percent of this voting bloc.
For Obama to govern effectively and retain solid prospects for reelection in 2012, he has no choice but to try to find a way to deal constructively with at least a significant minority within the evangelical movement. If Obama can find common ground with evangelicals on such important issues as service to the poor at home and abroad and and protecting the environment for the benefit of future generations, perhaps he can avoid compromising on his advocacy for the legal rights of gays and for a woman’s right to make her own choice on the question of abortion. Most evangelicals, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and conservative Catholics will disagree implacably with Obama on such core social issues, but the rational adults among them will recognize the political utility of trying to collaborate with Obama’s agenda where possible.
Is there peril in Obama’s approach? Of course. Many in the evangelical movement are simply not rational. (This assertion is not a slur directed expressly at evangelicals. It is just a general observation on religions in which priests claim to possess ultimate wisdom and to have the special ability to serve as intermediaries in bargaining with silent, invisible, imaginary beings–i.e. deities. There is no real difference between a chanting shaman in skins and feathers on the one hand, and a chanting Christian cleric in full ecclesiastical regalia or a reciting imam in full mufti on the other. All are doing the oogedy-boogedy. By the way, thank you, Kathleen Parker, for that wonderfully expressive, hyphenated word.)
The current and coming economic hard times will incline some segments of the evangelical movement to become millennialist and utterly intractable. They will flock to the revival tents to shake and ululate, shriek and weep, sway and shout, faint and writhe. They will put some of their few remaining dollars in the offering plates passed around by the contemporary Elmer Gantries. They will go home convinced that they, among all the sects, religions, and belief systems now and ever before in the history of Man, have finally discovered the only Absolute Truth and the One True Faith.
Throughout broad swathes of Appalachia, the Deep South, and the rural Western Plains, the worship of a Christian deity often exists in the same mind with the virtual worship of guns, not to mention a predisposition to jingoism, xenophobia, and antebellum white racism. Charismatic charlatans will gather flocks of followers, and we will see sects that will remind us of Jim Jones and Jonestown, David Koresh and Waco, Marshall Applewhite and Heaven’s Gate, or Warren Jeffs and his fundamentalist Mormon offshoot, with its incest and rampant sexual abuse of minors.
Not all evangelicals are rigidly certain of their own infallibility or utterly removed from empirical reality. Some consider themselves to be seekers and comprehend that they will always fall short of full understanding. Some even take seriously their religion’s teachings on humility, tolerance, and love of neighbor. Some take to heart the parables about the Good Samaritan, the importance of being one’s brother’s keeper, the Sermon on the Mount, and the long odds against a rich man entering the kingdom of heaven (how many camels have passed through the eye of a needle lately on Wall Street or among millionaire televangelists and publishers hawking tracts of religious hortatory?). There can be much in common between socially involved evangelicals and political progressives on such issues as fighting political corruption, disease epidemics, grinding Third World poverty, and illiteracy. We need to note Rick Warren’s dedication–clearly energetic and sincere–to these causes, as Juan Cole does today at his Informed Comment blogsite.
Obama, in his quest to serve as President of all the people, seems to be trying to reach out to the better angels, rather than the worst demons of human nature. To the extent that Obama can draw evangelicals into a dialogue based on civility and concrete, common social and economic issues, their very acceptance of such a dialogue will it harder for some among them to shout at those of us who hold secular or different religious belief systems.
It boils down to the core difference between most conservative evangelicals and most liberal progressives: evangelicals accept as inerrant the authority of their their scriptures and feel that their mission is to impose their religious beliefs on others in order to do God’s will and save the souls of the rest of us heretics or unbelievers; progressives are content to “live and let live” on issues of faith and theology and are disinclined to accept any authorities other than reason and demonstrable fact. One belief system is essentially pre-scientific and medieval; the other is essentially scientific and modern. One leads to endless conflict and ultimately to destruction; the other points to the possibility of coexistence and survival.
Obama clearly recognizes this threat to our social and civic fabric. In a speech to a “Call to Renewal” conference on October 28, 2006, here is how Obama addressed the dangers of sectarianism:
Given the increasing diversity of America’s population, the dangers of sectarianism have never been greater. Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation – at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.
Such an approach by Obama is positively Jeffersonian. It seems to echo what Thomas Jefferson so famously wrote in his Notes on Virginia:
But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
To attract just enough votes to win elections, the Republican Party, led by the captains of industry and finance, for the past forty plus years has given token support to the social agenda of white evangelicals, who in 2008 made up approximately 45 to 46 percent of the total Republican vote. If one adds to this evangelical total the equally devout conservative Catholics, Mormons, and white Southern Baptists who regularly vote Republican practically as a matter of religious duty, it becomes clear that most Republican voters seem to view the GOP as God’s Only Party. But by overseeing the transformation of Dwight Eisenhower’s moderate, socially tolerant, pro-business coalition into America’s oogedy-boogedy party, the GOP investor aristocracy has suddenly found itself to be in danger of losing real control to the very forces it has successfully manipulated for so long (note the rise of Sarah Palin, Bobby Jindal, and Mike Huckabee).
Fortunately, we have not seen executions for “witchcraft” in North America since the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693, though Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana conducted exorcisms in his days with the University Christian Fellowship and proudly described his efforts. An entranced Sarah Palin has gratefully accepted the anti-witchcraft prayers and laying-on-of-hands of a Kenyan witchhunter, Pastor Thomas Muthee. Now that is some serious oogedy-boogedy. We really are not as far as we would like to think that we are from a return to Medieval Times and inquisitions for heresy.
Obama’s goal appears to be to bring at least some of evangelicals into constructive dialogue in order to make them feel included and respected. If they were simply excluded from the political process under a progressive (or perhaps just centrist) Obama Administration, they would surely simmer, fester, and eventually explode in paroxysms of sanctimoneous rage and even outright violence, as in bombings of family planning clinics, in sectarian attacks on American Muslims, Sikhs, or Hindus (or Methodists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, or parishioners of other “mainstream” churches), in verbal and even physical attacks on gays or lesbians, or in racially charged assaults on Hispanics or African Americans.
If Obama judges that inviting Pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation on January 20th would help draw some of the more reasonable elements of the evangelical movement into a potentially productive and continuing dialogue, perhaps all of us on the “Left” should cut him some slack. After all, on such issues as alleviating poverty, battling endemic disease, and reducing illiteracy Warren and his church do have an excellent track record.
On a a broad range of progressive issues–addressing poverty, reforming health care, promoting a more equitable distribution of income, pursuing racial equality, ensuring equal legal rights for the GLBT community, preserving a woman’s right to choose, undertaking a genuinely science-based approach toward Global Warming, promoting green energy technologies, avoiding becoming bogged down in truly stupid wars–the Obama Administration still seems likely to be a vast–truly vast–improvement over the willfully ignorant, cavalierly looting, perpetually blundering, torture promoting, virtually medieval Bush Administration.
And remember: Obama and his team can count. There really are not many additional votes to be gained for Democrats in 2012 among the GBLT community, in which the Democrats have already maximized their returns. But there are many millions of votes to be sought among some of the more reality-based and sincere, moderate elements of the evangelical community. Perhaps there are a few more states like Minnesota and Iowa in which as many as 38 percent of evangelicals could decide to vote for Obama and for the kinds of progressive causes he promotes.
If Obama can find enough common ground with enough evangelicals to approach Bill Clinton’s success with this group, the Republican Party will remain in the political wilderness for at least the next eight years in much of the country. Indeed, the GOP may be reduced to a politically feeble token opposition party for a generation. (There is a key political threat here to progressive causes: that most members of the GOP investor aristocracy, recognizing that they have lost control of the Republican Party to their fundamentalist, conservative, evangelical voter “Base,” will shift their support and funds en masse to the Democratic Party in an effort to continue to buy influence over policy, i.e., to pay to play. Obama is clearly aware of this danger. Can he resist it? But that is the subject for an entirely different essay.)
Obama’s inclusive approach may promote an overall upswing in the civility of our public discourse. We may even be able to reaffirm the lessons of the Eighteenth Century Enlightenment and chip away at the vestiges of antiquated, medieval, superstitious modes of thought that still linger in our modern public square.
Let’s give Obama a chance–at least for a while, even if doing so requires dialogue with evangelicals. Soon enough we will be able to judge whether Obama’s policies are indeed informed by progressive core values, or whether he will turn out to be just another disappointing politician who chooses mere expediency over needed transformational change.
Surely we can afford Obama the chance to fulfill his goal of serving as President of all the people. He (and we) cannot hope to end bigotry and intolerance, but he (and we) can try to defuse and deflect them in the hope of averting sectarian explosions.
If we can successfully chip away at this monumental task for the ages here at home, perhaps we can once again become a positive role model for a planet awash in primitive sectarian strife and ethnic hatred.
And who knows? Maybe the very process of dialogue will demonstrate that not all oogedy-boogedy bigots shall forever remain oogedy-boogedy bigots. Even someone like Rick Warren may someday be willing to acknowledge that gays and lesbians should have the same civil and legal rights and protections as the straight community. Perhaps he will have the humility to acknowledge that the judgment to deny such rights to fellow human beings is simply not his to make.