Monday, January 26, 2009

Calculated Deference: Selecting Pastor Warren for the Inauguration Invocation

In selecting mega pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church to give a religious invocation at his inauguration, President Obama continued a trend widely employed during his campaign: deferring to ideological opponents in a manner designed to surreptitiously induce their engagement.

In much the same way candidate Obama maneuvered to engage conservatives by reversing his FISA vote or pandering to Christian conservatives, he carefully considered the possibility of a net gain in the long term by risking offending important constituents in the short term in selecting Pastor Warren for the invocation task.

Upsetting some of his most vociferous supporters at this stage no doubt involves a small measure of risk. Those who support gay rights came out in a big way for Obama during the election, and allowing the controversial Pastor Warren his moment in the sun surely calls for some explanation, given that Mr. Warren is equally vociferous in his opposition to gay marriage.

As for the merits of Rick Warren's views, reasonable minds can differ assuming reasonable minds can be found among right-wing Christians. It says much about how little secular proponents have achieved that there should even be a religious invocation at the swearing in of a new president. It also says something about how much they have achieved that their mere existence should deserve mention in the president's inaugural address.

If there's one thing President Obama appreciates, it is symbolism. An important reason given for closing the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center is that it has become a symbol which controverts professed American values. Americans themselves understand symbolism as well, and the symbol of a conservative, Christian Evangelical pastor momentarily presiding over the inauguration of a new president for the purpose of summoning a Christian deity for its blessing also contradicts a few uniquely American values.

Being able to assess the political ramifications of his decisions appears to be an Obama strength, and he has cautiously calculated that the Pastor Warren debacle will subside and a political benefit will ultimately be achieved.

One weapon President Obama will undoubtedly deploy from his arsenal of rhetoric and governance will be the same one he used in the Pastor Warren decision - the ability to calculate.

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