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Enemy of My Enemy

In the brouhaha over Rick Warren's role at Barack Obama's inauguration, unhappy progressives have not always appreciated the extent to which Warren's fellow fundamentalist evangelicals are just as unhappy as they are about this development.

And that raises the question whether, from a purely tactical point of view, Warren's presence at the inauguration could represent or at least create the potential of a split in the Religious Right.

This is an argument that the much-esteemed Alan Wolfe offers at The New Republic today. Indeed, Wolfe goes on to suggest that Warren's decision to bless Obama's presidency could help promote a more general relaxation of the political and cultural self-marginalization of conservative evangelicals that might usher in a more tolerant posture on all sorts of issues:

Warren's decision to accept an invitation from a liberal president is as clear a symbol of the entry of evangelicals into mainstream culture as one can imagine. In the conservative Christian subculture, liberals are treated with scorn. In the real world, they control the White House and Congress. How many evangelical preachers will be able to demonize Obama once Mr. Evangelical himself has blessed him?

Wolfe goes on to argue that evangelicals like Warren and Richard Cizik may represent a more centrist wave of the future among conservative evangelicals, who might ultimately accept gay marriage, though probably not legalized abortion.

The problem with this argument, as Wolfe himself acknolwedges, is that on the cultural issues that most divide progressives from the Christian Right, Warren is no "centrist." He is a fundamentalist evangelical who believes the literal language of the Bible is definitively and unchangingly normative on all issues of morality. Accordingly, he thinks of gay relationships as morally akin to incest or sexual abuse. And he thinks abortion, any abortion, is homicide, making legalized abortion a "holocaust."

Warren's critics from the Christian Right quite naturally believe that in invoking God's blessings on a "liberal" administration, he is consorting with sexual predators and, well, the contemporary equivalents of the Nazis. And not surprisingly, many of Obama's progressive critics on the subject of Warren think it's a bridge too far to exhibit fellowship with people who appear to think that they are predators and Nazis.

I'm not casually throwing around words like "Nazis," by the way. This is the natural consequence of believing, as most conservative evangelicals leaders, including Rick Warren, say they believe, that each and every abortion (according to a very expansive idea of abortion as meaning any destruction of a zygote from the moment of conception) is morally indistinguishable from herding Jews into death camps. When the Tom Cruise vehicle Valkyrie comes out in a few days, a lot of movegoers will be asking themselves if they would have killed Hitler given the opportunity, with most answering in the affirmative. For all their quite sincere protestations against violence, I am sure that a fair number of people who agree with Rick Warren on the "fundamentals" have privately wondered what they'd do if it could save millions more of the unborn from the extermination clinics abetted by a liberal government. Given their assumptions, it would be amazingly weak and lazy of them not to think about that on occasion.

Since even Alan Wolfe says he doubts that conservative evangelicals will ever "moderate" on the subject of abortion, it's a very good question whether there can ever be genuine comity and fellowship between those who view abortion as homicide and those who view it as the exercise of a fundamental right. And that's before you even get to the issue of LGBT rights, which folks like Warren quite logically consider at the very best an evil--a defiance of God's law and the order of the universe--to be tolerated only when necessary.

So if that's all true, it's reasonable to ask what both Obama and Warren are up to in their by-now-routine habit of cooperation.

Warren's motivation seems to be to reestablish the political independence of conservative evangelicals. Best I can tell, he dislikes the "marriage" between his religious flock and the secular-conservative GOP because (a) he is a more thoroughgoing fundamentalist than others, and takes seriously biblical injunctions like "creation care" and anti-poverty efforts, along with the usual social-conservative agenda, and (b) he thinks the Christian Right hasn't gotten much from its relationship with the GOP, and needs to regain some leverage.

If Alan Wolfe is right, and Obama is trying to split the conservative coalition, and perhaps tempt its membership into a more moderate position, then both Warren and Obama have very similar motives: cooperating with the enemy of their enemy for purely tactical purposes.

That's important to understand. Maybe Barack Obama is the United States of the 1970s, Rick Warren is Red China, and James Dobson is the Soviet Union. Obama and Warren have lots of reasons to make nice with each other, with an eye towards the maddening effect it's having on Dobson. But let's don't confuse this with some real convergence of views, actual or probably even potential. Obama's and Warren's views on some very fundamental aspects of moral and political life are irreconcilable. They are seeking to use each other. And that, not some imaginary surrender by either man to the other's position on abortion or gay marriage or anything else, is what we need to consider in assessing Warren's presence on the inaugural podium.

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There is another element to consider here. Although Warren himself - as a fundamentalist of some variety - may follow the logic of "abortion as murder" to the logical extreme you suggest, many of the people who consider themselves in his orbit probably are not so logically rigorous. Many evangelicals may consider abortion fundamentally and, in fact, grotesquely wrong but still get off the logical bus before arriving at the "zygote=Jews", "abortion supporters = Nazis" level of absolutist thinking.

Evaluating Obama's strategy thus requires thinking about the degree to which his "outreach" to Warren may influence the latter's supporters who are less consistant in their thinking than Warren himself as well as evaluating what Warren's own politico-theological strategy is.

First, Obama's views do converge with those of Rick Warren on one very important issue -- both have stated their opposition to gay marriage. Second, as you yourself suggest, trying to use Warren to divide the religious right reflects a profound misunderstanding of both. If Obama or his advisors think that this is somehow going to make the radical religious right any less intolerant, any less inflexible, they're living in a dreamworld. Third, no matter how you slice and dice it, by inviting Warren to share the stage, Obama effectively legitimizes Warren's most extreme, most virulent anti-gay views. Would Obama invite David Duke to the Inaugural? Of course not, but the message that Obama sends by this move is that gays are not entitled to the same respect for their concerns as other members of his coalition, that they are, in fact, nothing more than expendable political capital. There really is no way to sugar-coat this: the Warren invitation is more than a surrender -- it is a cynical political betrayal.


The Warren invitation has opened a useful conversation about the meaning of bipartisanship and compromise. Those who believe that "the enemy" becomes such by virtue of taking a bad position on any one of many issues cannot brook any compromise unless there's a way to reconcile opposing views, an unlikely prospect. For such simplistic people you're either with us or against us. Hmm, reminds me of somebody. Others of us, though, believe that people hold views on many different issues, and can cooperate on some while agreeing to disagree on others. I think that's Obama's view, or at least his hope.

The bottom line is respect: if we can respect people with whom we disagree, we can work with them. If we scorn or demonize such people, we can't. Respect for people with radically different views is not easy to learn when we never meet or hear such people, but in places like the Senate, where Obama and the likes of Cornyn, Brownback and Chambliss have to rub shoulders, learning to respect people of radically different view seems to be more possible.

If Obama's Sister Souljah Moment of using the Warren invitation to rile his gay supporters, and using that riling as an illustration to fundamentalists of the "real Obama," is to be effective, Obama will have to keep on slighting and shortchanging and insulting and betraying gay men and lesbians. The fundamentalists won't be convinced simply by the Invocation.

I see Obama now doing little or nothing for gay constituents, and I certainly see him backtracking on his (in any case wishy-washy and unconvincing) promise that his faith-based government grants won't allow the recipients to discriminate in hiring against people of different religions or sexual orientations.

When Saddleback gets a grant for AIDS outreach, will they (who don't permit practicing homosexuals to join their church) be forced to hire practicing homosexuals as nurses, etc? I'm betting hell no. To quote a semi-famous pledge, "Austria [Obama] will astonish the world with her ingratitude."

Well, fundamentalists can be ungrateful too. Anything Obama gives them, they'll just regard as their due, and go right on to demand the rest of their due. What I see happening isn't a rapprochement, but a repeat of the Carter years. Evangelicals hated, loathed and despised Jimmy Carter (after the first flush of girlish self-deception), and undermined him at every turn.

But because he was a born-again Baptist Sunday School teacher with scripture at the tip of his tongue, they had to adopt a strained politeness about him they never wasted on Bill Clinton (another church-going southern Protestant, but he never made that stick with the public).

Because Obama is so civil towards them (and because he's black, and they know darned well that many of them are rightly considered racist rednecks), they won't respond to his politeness with unmixed vitriol. No, they'll adopt a shallow tone of rueful mistrust and polite scorn.

That same tone, though much less shrill than the one used to "get" Clinton, was more than enough to get the fundamentalists of 1976 to turn against the Carter of 1980, and it will be more than enough to keep the same types from developing a comfort level with Obama in 2009.

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