President Barack Obama tried (again) to thread the needle with the benediction for his second inauguration. It didn’t go so well (again).
It’s an odd pattern for this president. He is black, mainline Protestant, and a Democrat. Yet he keeps reaching out to white, evangelical Republicans only to have it backfire. His invitations to such figures upsets some of his fellow Democrats. And the white, evangelical Republicans he reaches out to always seem upset that their acceptance of any such invitation does not result in the president immediately ceasing to be black, mainline Protestant and a Democrat.
Professionally aggrieved Christian Eric Metaxas criticized Obama for participating in a National Prayer Breakfast, shrugging off his remarks there as “phony religiosity.” Rick Warren, accepted Obama’s invitation to pray at his first inauguration, but has also taken to saying the president is “hostile” to Warren’s brand of religious faith.
So why does Obama keep upsetting his supporters in a futile attempt to build bridges with people who do not want any bridges between their world and that of a black, mainline Protestant, Democratic president?
Sarah Posner looks at the question from one angle:
Why, exactly, does Obama have this problem? Can’t he find an LGBT-affirming clergy, or at least someone who doesn’t have an online trove of sermons denouncing sexual sin, or, barring that, someone who has repented from homophobia, to put it in religious terms?
But the easy answer there is that of course he can find such people. Such people are his kind of people. Obama knows where to find his own kind of people.
The more complicated question is why doesn’t he? His re-election was an affirmation of his own kind of people, so why not select one of his own crowd to give the benediction at his inauguration? Why, instead, turn to a group that looks with contempt on the political views that got him re-elected and with disdain for his own religious perspective?
Or, as Paul Brandeis Raushenbush put it, why turn, of all people, to the “evangelicals who do not love him“?
Raushenbush concludes it’s because of something he finds both vexing and admirable, both frustrating and commendable, in who President Obama has repeatedly shown himself to be:
On the day when the National Cathedral has announced that gay people can be married in its sanctuary, it seems discordant to invite someone to pray who is on the record as condemning gay people to hell.
But perhaps it is this unquenchable hope for reconciliation that is the trait that is most to be admired in President Obama. On the night he was reelected, President Obama offered these words:
I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.
The president may be right. Hopefully as people of all faith and no faith continue to work together to solve the problems of our world we will grow together in understanding and respect. While today I feel anger, I know that for us to have a future as a nation we need to come together across differences, recognizing that the arc of the universe really does bend towards justice.
I share both of Raushenbush’s responses — the vexation and the admiration for Obama’s eagerness to reach out to those least likely to welcome such a gesture. And it’s not like this is new or news about Obama. He first came to national prominence with a 2004 speech in which exactly this was his resounding theme.
Obama’s stubborn insistence “despite all the evidence to the contrary” that it’s worth reaching out again and again to people who have declared you an enemy takes me back to my years of working for the peace and hunger advocate Ron Sider.
Sider was widely reviled by right-wing evangelicals who hated his call for a graduated tithe and for radical personal generosity. And so, as a result, they hated him. (They seemed particularly infuriated that he always also practiced what he preached.)
But as a good Mennonite, Ron firmly believed in sitting down and talking to try to find consensus. His response to personal attacks was to reach out, to invite his critics to meet with him. Even when his critics were clearly acting in bad faith, his response would be to reach out to them in the hopes that he could convince them to start acting in good faith.
That is something I have always admired about Ron Sider. It is also one of the greatest sources of frustration for anyone who has ever worked with him, because he stubbornly refuses to believe that such reaching out is ever a waste of time, even when it has repeatedly proved to be a waste of time.
So too with Obama. He refuses to accept that such reaching out can be a waste of time, even when the folks he’s reaching out to have enthusiastically wasted his time and rebuffed his efforts again and again.
But this latest inauguration-prayer controversy is a harder case. It’s one thing when Obama exhibits this willingness to keep reaching out to those who attack him unfairly, but it seems heedless (the theological word is “scandalous”) when he keeps reaching out to those who attack others unfairly. Turning the other cheek is admirable when it’s your cheek, less so when it’s someone else’s.
Those others understandably might wish that he’d show as much concern for defending them as he does for reaching out to those from whom they need to be defended.
So anyway, if not an anti-gay white, evangelical, Republican, then who should give the benediction at Obama’s second inauguration? We’ll get to that in the next post on this topic.