Where politics and faith dance in the shadow of the windmill.

Rick Warren and the Big Show

Tomorrow is the show.  The Inauguration.  And with comes the controversy of Rick Warren.

The ins and outs of this controversy may already be fading, but before Warren stands up and prays, a few words ought to be said about what this means (or does not).  After all, in the land of the Windmill, Rick Warren does have some some standing.

Let’s start with the personal. To read Barbara Hagerty at NPR, there is a real bond of friendship behind the decision.  And as even die-hard partisans will admit, they often do have friends across the philosophical aisle.  So Warren is selected being a useful acquaintance, a friend.  And of course by doing so, Obama further cements the bond between them.

As to the politics, at its most basic, the Obama invitation has the marks of other actions, such as reaching out to Sen. McCain — it’s a way to bring  an outside group into the conversation.  After all, this is one of the real powers of his office, determining who gets heard.  And again, it is not that difficult to see the political goal he is aiming for: a defusing of the culture war.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped the social conservatives who are busily  trying to ramp up vision of Obama as an arch-abortionist,  one ready to sign the Freedom of Choice Act (aka FOCA) on a moment’s notice, independent of actual action by Congress.  Even while the fires of paranoia get stoked, Obama’s selection of Warren seems to side step the issue. Rather than contest the issue, Obama moves past it with an implicit “So?”

But it is not the battle over abortion that draws the ire from the left, but rather from the controversies over the role of participation of gays in society, and especially in the ability of gays to have their relationships recognized as marriage.

The great reversal

In the wake of Prop 8, those supporting marriage rights for gays and more broadly, full inclusion of gays in society have waged an aggressive push-back campaign.  Here, Warren’s support for Prop 8, together with his general Evangelical view of homosexuality have aroused political ire from the political Left.  What is distressing for those here in the land of the Windmill is that Warren’s views are not so separate from evangelicals generally.  Far from an exemplar of homophobia, his views are much more commonplace.   In much the same way that conservatives rail against “the homosexual lifestyle” or “godless elites” so now evangelicals get the favor returned. Susan Posner gives a sharp expression of the sentiment:

Warren represents the absolute worst of the Democrats’ religious outreach, a right-winger masquerading as a do-gooder anointed as the arbiter of what it means to be faithful.

The bitterness last month was palpable.  So where we have the President seeking to dampen the culture wars, progressives have found an issue on which to push even harder.

And for those of us who live int he shadow of the windmill, this animosity to evangelicals and religious faith generally is more than a little disconcerting.  It certainly challenges the path we have been taking.  But perhaps we should have seen it coming.

A Weyrichian moment

This politicization of belief is intensely familiar, it is the hallmark of the Christian Right, shaped into its modern shape by the late Paul Weyrich.  So hot button issues (abortion, gays) that have a moral vector are then transmuted into unalterable voting propositions.  For a generation (1975-2000) this seemed like a sure fire path to victory.  Even in the last election 75 percent of self-identified Evangelicals voted for the GOP — their most reliable constituency.  With success like that, who could quibble?

And yet, this alliance of politics and conservative religious belief really only worked so long as there was something like a broader mainline belief.  Its assumption was that this was, in some sense, a sectarian battle, internal to the Christian community.

But of course, the very alliance of politics and faith, breeds the counter action, not that of liberal politics and liberal faith but of a liberal politics premised on rejection of faith.  It is the logical consequence of Weyrich, indeed of all faith-based politics. Faith-based political success does not breed the alternative religious viewpoints so beloved of Abraham Kuyper, but rather a more generalized rejection of religious input.

In the reaction to Warren we see that the culture wars have not grown dull (despite the earnest effort of our new President), but have only moved to a new neighborhood.  For those who seek to inform politics with faith, the curse of Weyrich has yet to be lifted.

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2 Responses

  1. Alex L. says:

    Nice post, Bill.

    While much of Warren’s invocation was not especially memorable, I was struck by how he navigated the pluralism issue. Its’s always a sticking point in a public, civic prayer how distinctly Christian you’re going to make it. And Warren did drop the J-word. Introducing the Lord’s prayer at the close of his invocation he said “I humbly ask this in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus, Jesus (hay-SOOS)…” This struck me as a clever way of navigating the issue. By using the Hebrew, Arabic, English, and Spanish versions of Jesus’ name Warren could be, at once, distinctly Christian, and yet at the same time show that Christianity is itself hardly a narrowly Western, white, Anglophone religion. This is much better way of being inclusive, of embracing differences within Christianity, rather than diluting and jettisoning the particulars of the tradition. Though one could remark that everyone (save the atheists) had something they could latch onto in that sentence: pietistic evangelicals (myself and Emily included) noticed the reference to the personal nature of his address (“the one who changed my life”); Yeshua for Jews (that’s streaching it a bit); Isa for Muslims; the Spanish Jesus for minorities and Catholics; and the Lord’s prayer for traditional, liturgical folks.

  2. greee says:

    I went to a Lutheran High School just outside Chicago. Missouri Synod, in fact. To their credit (and this was the 70’s) they ran an honest comparative religion course. What I mean by honest is that the powers that be actually invited adherents of different religions into the classroom to speak about their religion. No filter, no censorship.

    Once we had a speaker come into our class to talk about his faith. He was a Jehovah witness, and he had 50 minutes to make his case.

    Well, he was passionate. He knew his shit (as far as any of us could tell, I mean what the fuck did any of us know about this religion. I suppose that was the point of the invite.) He was from the south, and it was important to him to impress upon us that it was a sin o mispronounce the name of Jehover. Full southern accent, “J” pronounced soft and with primary accent, the “h” skipped, long “o”, finish with a solid “ur”.

    29 year later I get to read some silly son of a bitch write about how pious Warren is, or how ecumenical he comes across because he pronounces the name of Jehover in five languages.

    Allah be praised, these ignorant sob’s do not have a clue.

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