Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lincoln Vs. Obama re: Better Angels: Demands of the Moral Point of View

In the wake of the Rick Warren inauguration pick, there’s a lot of chatter online about the Lincoln-Obama analogy. I appreciate the discussion that has developed about my own posting on this topic (http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/2008/12/obama-and-lincoln-rick-warren-and-price.html).

In the discussion thread, Sandy, a blogger at the Direct Democracy site, suggests that Lincoln’s first inaugural address shows his intent to draw the country together rather than to divide it—just as Obama’s choice of Rick Warren intends to heal rather than deepen our wounds. I find that Sandy developed this argument at length yesterday in a posting at the DD site, entitled “To Understand Warren, Look to Lincoln” (www.mydd.com/story/2008/12/22/122856/26).

Sandy concludes that, just as Lincoln sought to preserve the Union in his “better angels” address, Obama is reaching across divisive ideological lines to hold us together as a people. In her view, “Maybe he is not so much giving Rick Warren a platform for his archaic and offensive beliefs, but rather delivering a statement that any continuation of the animosity of the culture wars is not going to emanate from this Administration.”

Mark Crispin Miller offers a contrasting analysis of the Obama-Lincoln analogy on a posting at the News from Underground site (http://markcrispinmiller.com/2008/12/obama-lincoln.html/comment-page-1). His piece builds on the argument of John F. Harris and Alexander Burns in a recent Politico posting entitled “Straw Man? Historians Say Obama Is No Lincoln” (http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=38423BFB-18FE-70B2-A8EF01A155063BF4).

Harris and Burns note that Obama has repeatedly drawn the comparison between Lincoln and himself. They note the influence on Obama of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s study of Lincoln’s political strategy, Team of Rivals. They also conclude, along with various historians, that the analogy between Obama and Lincoln is easily overdrawn: the two lived in different eras and pursued different political goals.*

For Mark Crispin Miller, the Lincoln-Obama analogy breaks down with the selection of Rick Warren to deliver Obama’s inaugural invocation. Miller characterizes Warren as an extremist. In his view, there is an unwholesome “grandiosity” in Obama’s assumption that one can bring an extremist minority inside one’s tent, and that they won’t continue trying to burn the tent down.

In my view, the most perceptive consideration of the Lincoln-Obama analogy I’ve read to date is Geoffrey Dunn’s “Et Tu, Obama?: The Choice of Rick Warren Is Unacceptable” on Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/geoffrey-dunn/et-tu-obama-the-choice-of_b_152165.html). Dunn notes that he was an early supporter of Obama who criticized the Clinton campaign for its willingness to employ racist tactics in the primary.

Up to the Warren selection, Dunn has been willing to give “a couple of free passes” to Obama, because of his strong support for the new president. Now things have changed. The choice of Rick Warren has changed things for Dunn. In Dunn’s view, this choice is “morally reprehensible.” Dunn zeroes in on the crucial difference between Lincoln and Obama—that is, the radically different way in which these two leaders address the burning human rights issue of their day, as they build their teams of rivals:

Lincoln may have brought together a "team of rivals" in his cabinet, but at his First Inaugural, Lincoln was absolutely steadfast and unequivocal about the about the sanctity of the Union. He made a celebrated plea for Americans to find the "better angels of our nature" on the issue. He gave no ground.

And Lincoln also had something very interesting to say at that First Inaugural that sheds light on the issue of gay marriage in America. "If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might in a moral point of view, justify revolution; certainly would if such right were a vital one."

And that is, of course, precisely my point in my own posting probing the Lincoln-Obama analogy. Like Dunn, I supported Mr. Obama early on in the campaign; like him, I continually expressed consternation at the racist overtones of the Clinton camp. Like him, I have been willing to give passes to the president-elect.

Until the Warren selection. Where Lincoln “gave no ground” in defense of human rights, in my view, Obama is willing to give ample ground, when it comes to the human rights of gay persons. And since I am the ground being given, I naturally have certain concerns about this softness regarding my human rights. Obama’s selection of Warren signals his willingness to give ground—a willingness woven through the culture that dominates the American religious landscape, the culture of evangelical Christianity, as well as the culture of those allied with evangelicalism on “family” issues, including the Catholic church.

Where Lincoln was willing to challenge the dominant perception of people of faith in his time frame, Obama asks for conciliation. Where Lincoln recognized that the “moral point of view” demands that we react strongly to any attempt of the majority to deprive the minority of human rights by “the mere force of numbers,” Mr. Obama has shown himself (along with his evangelical friends of the right) to be tone-deaf to the most urgent assault on human rights in our culture at present.

When I compare the two men as leaders, I see a world of difference. And that difference lies along the simple, stark line of doing what is right. Right at the moment. Right when there is a price to pay for doing right.

Lincoln sought to preserve the Union. But he did not do so by abdicating his unwavering commitment to the human rights of enslaved people. He stood unshakeable on the side of right, and the Union did split over this issue—as anyone could see it would certainly split from the time this advocate of the human rights of slaves took office. As Lincoln himself knew would happen if he continued standing for what was right.

I am intently concerned these days with the way in which the “team of rivals” metaphor is being used by Obama and some of his supporters. I wrote yesterday about the attempt (an illicit one, in my view) to use the rubric of cooperation and conciliation as a way of silencing gay persons advocating for their rights, vis-à-vis the Rick Warren selection, and of silencing the growing number of American citizens who are willing to make common cause with gay citizens in this historic movement for rights.

Here’s how I see what is going on. Our participatory democracy is a big table at which everyone has to have a place, if we want that democracy to be authentic. Many voices are now telling gay Americans and our allies to come sit at the table. Stop being petulant. Eat and enjoy; talk and make merry with everyone else who has to be invited to the table.

And yet we look at the table settings, and we find that there is no place at all there for us. And it’s not as if Rick Warren and his cronies are suddenly being invited to a table from which they have long been excluded. God knows, they’ve been at the table lo these many years, eating and drinking and making merry. And assuring that the gays don’t get to the table.

Now all of a sudden the problem of inclusion and acceptance and reaching out is the gays’ fault? And the problem of making a place at the table is a problem of finding room for Rick Warren and the religious right?

The discourse of inclusion with which many of us are being bombarded these days, not only from the right but from the center as well, is, to say the least, false. It covers over the real problem of inclusion in our participatory democracy. It shields those who keep creating that problem and manipulating it for ugly political ends from responsibility for what they are doing. It inverts the problem of inclusion and blames the exclusionary impulse in our culture on those being excluded!

When religious language—honeyed language about love and forgiveness—is used to drive home the point of gay responsibility for exclusion of the religious right, then something is radically wrong. Religious rhetoric should never be used to justify exclusionary impulses that then target those excluded as if they are responsible for their own exclusion—and that of others who have the predominant places at the table.

How can those on the right—and, increasingly, those in the center—get away with such a bold distortion of the actual dynamics of inclusion-exclusion that govern the place of gay Americans at the table of participatory democracy? To their shame, they can do so because they are in the majority. They have the larger voice. They can shout louder.

They can more easily make it seem that God is on their side.

This is precisely the manipulation of religious consciousness Lincoln aims squarely at and disempowers in his first inaugural address, when he observes that the moral point of view does not permit the majority to trample on the rights of the minority, through sheer force of numbers. Morality is about something else entirely.

It is about taking the side of the oppressed, no matter who they are. It is about evaluating every social situation at each point in history to see whose rights are most tenuous and threatened, who is most in need of a place at the table.

It is about creating a table big enough for us all, at which no voice is allowed to shout others down simply because it represents a bigger majority. It is about setting a table at which the voices of those most marginalized receive a hearing every bit as respectful as the hearing given to those who represent the big number, the big bucks, the power and glory of the political and economic spheres.

In my view, Lincoln got it. Obama? I’ll wait and see. But as I wait, I have the Rick Warren selection to contend with. And it does not bode well for the new president’s unwavering commitment to human rights—for all.

* In her response to my Lincoln-Obama posting, Sandy points out that there was no invocation at Lincoln’s inauguration. She’s right, of course. The practice of having religious authority figures pray at presidential inaugurations is a very recent one—one that dates from 1933.

My question about whether Lincoln would have invited a religious advocate of slavery to pray at his inauguration is a fantasy question, one that retrojects a present practice back into history, to make a point about the present. The force of my argument lies not with precise descriptions of historical precedents. It lies with the juxtaposition of Lincoln as an opponent of slavery with Obama as an advocate for the human rights of threatened minorities in his day.

As the husband of a friend of mine—an African-American couple, as it happens—said to me recently, given the historical precedents available to the new president (invite pastors to pray, or dispense altogether with this very recent custom), it seems even more strange that Obama chose Rick Warren for the inaugural ceremony. As my friend’s husband noted, venerable tradition would have allowed the new president to ask, for instance, that the nation observe a moment of respectful silence at the beginning of the inauguration.

That moment might have spoken more powerfully by far than any invocation we could possibly hear. And it might have healed more and been more genuinely inclusive than any partisan prayer.