As you know, President-elect Barack Obama generated a lot of controversy when he asked the Rev. Rick Warren, evangelical superstar, to pray at his inauguration. In light of ridiculous headlines on CNN like “Pastor Disaster?” and “Prayer Outrage,” Obama quickly defended his decision. Now The Forward—that’s right, the liberal, intellectual, Jewish newspaper from, oh goodness, New York—has editorialized in favor of the “Purpose-Driven” pastor:
More of the same would have spelled disaster, but failure to achieve change isn’t much better. The nation needs an economy that won’t collapse again, one that measures success in mouths fed. It needs to retool at every level for cleaner, sustainable energy. It needs a new foreign policy that seeks dialogue before confrontation.
To get the job done, Obama will need more than an administration backed by half the populace. He needs a nation united behind him. He needs, ultimately, a new governing majority.
That is where Rick Warren comes in. Warren speaks for a vast constituency that once voted Democratic because of bread-and-butter issues, but turned rightward a generation ago, alienated by abortion, gay rights and the broader culture war. After three decades of Republican misrule and free-market fundamentalism, some appear ready to come back. Warren talks about putting issues of social justice back on the national agenda — feeding the poor, healing the sick, saving the planet. Part of his agenda is repugnant to progressives; part of the progressive agenda is repugnant to him. That shouldn’t mean there’s no room for cooperation on vital issues.
Democrats used to know how to build those sorts of alliances. Franklin Roosevelt gave a Supreme Court seat to Hugo Black, a onetime Ku Klux Klan member, and still managed to create the New Deal, defeat the Nazis and set up the first federal civil rights agency of the 20th century, the Fair Employment Practices Committee. Lyndon Johnson worked closely with Southern racists like Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, his lifelong mentor, and yet he still managed to pass landmark civil rights legislation and launch a war on poverty.
What Democrats understood in those days — and what Obama seems to understand now — is that in order to advance the rights of minorities, you must first build a majority. You can’t help the powerless if you don’t have power. An inauguration isn’t a political convention, but a time to speak to all Americans.