How President Obama reminds me of Ron Sider (and why that’s both good and bad)

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.

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  • As a white male, I hope it’s not a white male. 

  • I’ve seen some online calls for Catholic priest Jim Martin, the one who shows up on The Colbert Report from time to time.  He’s pretty solidly moderate, which in Catholic circles means he’s come under fire from both progressives and conservatives.    And yeah, a white male.

  • Why should there be any benediction at all?
    The inauguration is a civil ceremony, or should be.

  • patter

    Oooo, oooo, pick me! 

    I want Nadia Bolz-Weber!!

  • Will

    “Why should there be any benediction at all?”
    Agreed, I think we could do without the perennial reminder by Christians that they’re the majority and the rest of us can suck it. 
    What purpose does a specifically Christian benediction serve in a ceremony to inaugurate an official elected to a secular government? What function does it serve other than a show of Christian privilege, as yet another reminder to all of us Americans who aren’t Christian that we are lesser, and that our concerns will be treated as lesser, all the way up to the highest levels of government?

  • ReverendRef

    So anyway, if not an anti-gay white, evangelical, Republican, then who
    should give the benediction at Obama’s second inauguration?

    My quick answer would be the Very Rev. Gary Hall, Dean of Washington’s National Cathedral.

    My more measured response would be the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

  • Carstonio

    If it has to be a Christian benediction, I vote for Rachel Held Evans.

  • Slow Learner

    How about Greg Epstein? That would be a great shout-out to a solid Obama constituency, and a gentle, subtle fuck-you to the teavangelicals.

  • Magic_Cracker

    Who do they got lined up for the malediction?

  • histrogeek

     Why not Martin L. King III? Or (rooting for my home team) Bishop Barbara Harris or Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schorri to say nothing of John Spong or Eugene Robinson (the last two are of course white men)?
    Jim Wallis is one if we must an evangelical white male with anti-gay statements in his record.

  • Gotchaye

    Also, there’s political value in being seen to be bipartisan and centrist and all that.  Inviting an anti-gay pastor to do the benediction clearly signals that Obama is to the right of his base.  Floating the name and having it shot down make Obama look pretty good to people who are ambivalent on gay rights while motivating liberals to participate in Democratic politics rather than engaging outside of the party or staying home.

    My guess is that after all the Jeremiah Wright (and secret Muslim) stuff, Obama has wanted to be careful not to endorse a religious figure that the right will rail against as un-Christian.  Now, even if a pro-gay person ends up doing the benediction, it still wasn’t his first choice.

  • Seriously, Nadia or Rachel.

  • ReverendRef

     Oooh . . . Bishop Harris — Good call.

  • caryjamesbond

    This post, I think, makes the same single-issue error that a lot of republicans make.   The Republican base is heavily rooted in two primary issues-opposing abortion and gay rights.  And a LOT of people have been elected on that platform.  

    But there are a million and a half other issues, just as pressing as those two, that do not have the political impact, that still need to be legislated on- taxes, wars, regulations, disasters, treaties, funding. Alienating very powerful people over a single issue is counterproductive to Obama’s job, which is running the ENTIRE nation. 
    This is actually a very, very GOOD time to be reaching across the aisle in small, meaningless, but  goodwill-building gestures.  The Republican party is currently engaged in some very bitter infighting, caused in part by the fact that one block of that party just tried to burn down the economy for shits and giggles. This is an excellent time to reach out to the rational- the couple hundred people in the house and Senate visible horrified by the actions of the radical wing who subsequently joined the democrats in voting for the fiscal cliff bill.  This can weaken the radicals, strengthen the moderates, and gain Obama more political capital in the future.  

    This is a tactical move. Obama can throw a bone to the anti=LGBT crowd without doing anything that actually hurts gay rights. When are lefties gonna realize that politics is a nasty business that involves placating your allies in ways you may not like so they’ll do something for you later? 

  • Kiba

    I would gladly volunteer for that one. 

  • vsm

    So, a reverse Sister Souljah moment, where instead of distancing oneself from supposed extremists on one’s own side, the politician offers a hand to someone of the opposite camp? Is there a specific term for such a move?

  • Kiba

    There’s also Father Geoff Farrow who’s not only gay, but also was one of the people arrested for chaining themselves to the White House fence over DADT.

    Preferably I would rather there not be a benediction at all. 

  • P J Evans

     Obama keeps doing his ‘bipartisan’ thing with people who would prefer that he be dead, and it keeps getting thrown back at him with toothmarks on it.
    Why do you think it’s a good idea to try it again,when it clearly isn’t working?

  • P J Evans

    Also: ‘you lefties’ isn’t a good way to get people to even read your stuff.

  • Also, there’s political value in being seen to be bipartisan and centrist and all that.

    No there isn’t. Bipartisanship has always been a red herring. Attempts to compromise with the Republicans beyond the barest amount necessary to acquire a majority vote have no benefit for Obama outside of the narrow confines of the DLC. It just angers liberals*, and makes conservatives stick their fingers in their ears and pretend that Obama is an uber-partisan socialist.

    *Rightly so, because the Republicans have absolutely nothing of value to contribute to government.

  • Katie

    Amina Wadud. Just to watch heads explode all over the place. 
    If, as a Christian, Obama would prefer a Christian benediction, I vote for Rachel Held Evans.

  • LL

    Another vote for no benediction here, though I realize there’s no point, it’s gonna happen regardless of what us godless people say. 

    Or at least get a non-denominational person to do it. Extra points if the person is a female. 

  • Magic_Cracker

    What we really need is a Speaker for the Dead to do the “benediction.” Someone needs to lay down some serious unfiltered truth.

  • Darkrose

    Fred, there’s just one thing you missed, and it’s kind of an important point. Giglio wasn’t chosen for his anti-gay views. Since the source for those views was from the late 1990’s, it’s entirely possible that the inauguration committee is telling the truth when they said they weren’t aware of them. Giglio was apparently chosen because he’s done a lot of work in the area of human trafficking. I’m sure the fact that he was a southern white evangelical also had a lot to do with it, but I suspect someone looked at him and said, “Hey, here’s someone who’s conservative but is working on an issue that everyone agrees on; he’s perfect.” 

  • vsm

    Orson Scott Card, then?

  • Magic_Cracker


    *For real!

  • P J Evans

     They didn’t do their homework all that well, then.

  • Darkrose

    No argument there. I just think there’s a difference between malice (actively doing something you know will piss off your base) and stupidity (failing to thoroughly check out your guy).

  • Gotchaye

    I don’t see that there’s any reason to think that’s true.  Independents are less important than ever, but they still matter.  And the enthusiasm of a party’s base matters.  Politicians have lots of reason to do things that make them appear centrist.  Obama has a strong interest in keeping away from any kind of religiosity that the right could describe as radical. 

    You’re confusing substantive bipartisanship with theatrical bipartisanship.  Politically, it absolutely matters that Obama has pulled of looking like the reasonable centrist in the fiscal cliff fight, for example.  He failed to look like the reasonable centrist in the Obamacare fight, mostly by prenegotiating, and that hurt a lot.

    This in particular is win-win for Obama because the successful backlash from liberals doesn’t disillusion anybody.  The lesson liberals can take from this is that if they remain engaged they can keep the Democrats honest.

  • cjmr

    I’d recommend my friend who is a UU minister, but I suspect he’s looking for a nationally known name…

  • After reading this article today, I told my wife about it, and commented “Could you imagine how many heads would be rolling on The West Wing had they failed to vet two candidates in a row?”

    I can’t fathom that these people continue to fail at vetting candidates so repeatedly.

  • Dash1

    Why not a rabbi? Each of the three (four?) main branches of Judaism has a rabbi who heads their armed services chaplains. Any of those would probably fill the bill.

  • Or instead of getting a high-profile preacher of some kind, why doesn’t Obama just go for the bland and get a military chaplain to do the benediction?

  • JoshuaS

    I get that, but I honestly don’t see the kind of person who would freak out if Obama did not choose an anti-LGBT pastor would also be the kind of person who would be prone to reaching across the aisles. Moderate Republicans — whatever that means — wouldn’t expect a Democratic politician to pander to the darkest recesses of their own party. Why would they?

    It makes sense to make overtures to the people on the other side who have some common ground with you, but the Santorums, Perrys, Bachmanns, etc. aren’t going to found common ground with Obama no matter what he does. He could sign legislation outlawing same-sex marriage and abortion and their rhetoric that he’s attacking their faith and privileges would not change at all. They probably wouldn’t even miss a beat as they pivot into arguing that somehow Obama’s compliance with their requests is treacherous assault against them.

    I get politics; I don’t get appeasing people who hate you and will never stop hating you.

  • Antigone10

    How about John Cleese?  He did a pretty good prayer in “Meaning of Life”.  :)

    Less glib I am going to repeat the “Why do we need one at all?”  If it is to show the President’s personal values, then Jeremiah Wright would be appropriate.  If it’s political theatre to throw a sop to the right, then pick whomever the hell you want.  Pick Jerry Fawell for all I care.  If this ACTUALLY gets swing votes, if this actually gives them political capital that they can barter to get real political action, I don’t care.  Get Fred Phelps- I’d pay the cost of his 20 minutes of rambling to a deity I don’t actually believe in if it meant healthcare reform, or gay marriage, or student loan reform, or usury law amendments, or comprehensive reproductive rights, or anti-poverty measures, or anything in the fairly extensive progressive agenda.

    But the fact that they always go with a “Right wing, but not TOO right-wing” makes me think that they’re just playing fast and loose with the idea of “political capital”.  He’s re-elected: get a council of interfaith people to say some generic words.  Get whomever is the Unitarian leader.  Play “random American of faith” and have him/her give the Benediction- I like that precedent, personally.

  • Hilary

    Fred, why don’t YOU volunter?  Or lets really have some fun – send Hement Mehta!  The Friendly Athiest, if I just butchered his name.

  • Keulan

    How about no benediction at all? Since a lot of people would go apeshit if Obama picked anyone who isn’t a Christian, it’ll only serve to demonstrate the majority status of Christians in this country while showing that the rest of us aren’t as important. Besides, there’s far too much religious intrusion into our government already.

  • fraser

    Rick Santorum, considered a viable Repub presidential candidate, has stated that mainstream Protestants aren’t really Christian and liberals cannot be Christian. Trying to pick someone Republicans won’t describe as radical is like trying to pick a presidential Democratic candidate who won’t be portrayed as extreme and unamerican.

  • fraser

     I’ve sometimes said that if Obama acquired the power of flight, the Repub response would be “biased mainstream media in raptures over Obama’s bird imitations.”

  • Does the preacher need to be American? I can’t imagine anyone complaining if Archbishop Desmond Tutu did the thing. Assuming he’d do it. 

  • reynard61

    “So, a reverse Sister Souljah moment, where instead of distancing oneself from supposed extremists on one’s own side, the politician offers a hand to someone of the opposite camp? Is there a specific term for such a move?”

    Were I in a slightly more cynical or grouchy frame of mind, I’d probably use the terms “Hara-kiri”, “suicide”, “self-immolation”, “self-fellation” and a few others that describe how President Obama showed off his utter impotence and weakness for all to see during his first term. But since I’m in a relatively good mood at the moment, I’d probably offer up terms like “reality-based”, “clue-by-four” and “The-Chair-Leg-Of-Truth-That-Does-Not-Lie”. In other words, it’s all well and good for President Obama to reach out to the other side — but he needs to remind the other side that the same Nation that elected *him* to do a job also elected *them* to do *their* jobs. And if it takes a bit of desk-pounding to make them aware of that fact, then he needs to pound that desk — and hopefully them — into submission.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Of course people would complain if it was Desmond Tutu. There is no possible option that won’t lead to people complaining.

  • reynard61

    On the subject of Inaugural Benedictions: I’d prefer none at all; but if we must, how about a Shinto Priest? Or a Buddhist monk? (The Dalai Lama is pretty popular these days.) Or maybe a Native American Medicine Man/Shaman? Heck, I could probably offer up a halfway decent prayer to the Goddesses Celestia and Luna if pressed…

  • I don’t want to just jump all over you, but–in what insane fantasy universe does “southern white evangelical” leader NOT equal “hates the gays, and probably the blacks to boot”?

  • Original Lee

    Diana Butler Bass?

  • Original Lee

    Diana Butler Bass?

  • Tricksterson

    Bobby Henderson

  • Baby_Raptor

    “When are lefties gonna realize that politics is a nasty business that involves placating your allies in ways you may not like so they’ll do something for you later?”

    When the Republicans actually show that they’re willing to ‘do something for us later,’ instead of sitting around doing every single thing they can possibly think of to make us fail? What’s the point in trying to work with someone whose only goal is to make sure you crash and burn? 

  • Paul Durant

    What we really need is a Speaker for the Dead to do the “benediction.”

    By this do you man “necromancer?” Because I am behind that idea one thousand percent.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Orson Scott Card, actually. He had some good ideas, and that was one of them. Fuck if I know how it would be executed in the real world, though, and damn shame about his politics.