When president-elect Barack Obama chose evangelical leader Rick Warren to lead a prayer at his inauguration the cultural Left threw the predictable fits. Said Kathryn Kolbert, president of People for the American Way, “this decision further elevates someone who has in recent weeks actively promoted legalized discrimination and denigrated the lives and relationships of millions of Americans,” referring to the recently passed anti-gay marriage referendum, Proposition 8 in California. Said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, “by inviting Rick Warren to your inauguration, you have tarnished the view that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have a place at your table.” Added Democratic political consultant Chad Griffith “Rick Warren needs to realize that he is further dividing us at a time when the country needs to come together.”
In light of the Rick Warren controversy, such “coming together” rhetoric, so often mouthed by champions of “diversity” has one again proven to be a farce. For a true “coming together” of any sort on social issues, one might expect political opponents to either agree-to-disagree, yet still join and work together where they can, or for both sides to at least concede some principles as a compromise. In this case, as in most cases, the champions of diversity simply do not want an evangelical of Warren’s stripe to even be allowed a seat at the table. And while Warren hasn’t budged from his stance on gay marriage, neither will the Left anytime soon. It seems that the oft-desired “coming together” means not any new, warm embrace, but unconditional surrender, where only conservatives are always expected to wave the white flag.
The rise of social issues in American politics has as much to do with campaign strategies as the issues themselves. Gay marriage has become for the Democrats what abortion has long been for Republicans – issues that are better left unresolved because they are too useful in controlling certain voters. Any liberal or moderate Republican worried about shoring up his evangelical base can do so by mouthing just the right amount of pro-life rhetoric during his campaign, knowing full-well he has no intention of seriously revisiting the subject after the election. Just ask John McCain. To woo the cultural Left, the tiniest illustration by Democrats that they are at least favorable to gay-marriage is enough to garner those votes, even if it’s practically invisible on their actual agenda. Just ask Barack Obama.
Social issues like gay marriage and abortion remain trivialities not because they aren’t important – but because neither are likely to be solved precisely because neither party benefits from doing so. Why do mainstream Republicans or Democrats not demand states’ rights solutions, where individual states would be free to legalize or outlaw gay marriage or abortion according to the popular will? Because neither party really wants any real solutions. The purpose of a Republican supporting something like the Defense of Marriage Act is not to protect marriage per se, but to protect your office by signaling to voters that you stand on the right side of an issue that you and your successors hope never goes away. Likewise, in standing against the Defense of Marriage Act, Democrats benefit for the exact opposite reason.
Rick Warren’s invocation at Obama’s inauguration will not be a brighter, sadder or even different new day in the culture wars – but a symbolic gesture by the president-elect whose very rise to power has been more symbolic than substantive. Leftists who believe Warren’s mere presence at the inauguration represents anything tragic are as naïve as those on the Right who might believe it represents promise. And in both satisfying and enraging both sides of the social issues fence by inviting Warren to his swearing-in, the president-elect may indeed be introducing a new symbolic style, if only to cover-up the same old lack of substance.
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