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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Rick Warren Flap

Good Frank Rich column today critical of Obama's pick of Rick Warren to pray at the inauguration. I thought about this while I was away and have a few thoughts.

I'm unclear on why Obama thinks it's a good move to reach out to evangelical voters on religion, to try to find common grounds on faith, as this move seems to suggest he is. Finding common ground on economic issues, even on international issues (HIV/AIDS), sure. But it's one thing to work together on specific issues and another to effectively endorse beliefs.

Setting aside the same-sex marriage issue for a moment, Obama may think that by validating the beliefs of evangelicals he can defuse their sense of victimhood, and that if evangelicals cease to feel persecuted, then they may be more persuadable on economic or international issues. You might call this the de-O'Reilly-ification of GOP voters. If it's only a matter of bolstering the social standing of the evangelicals, this might work.

Except, as any nonbeliever will tell you, evangelicals are not stigmatized in American society. Oh, sure, they may be mocked in elite culture and in certain forms of media from time to time. But in most of the country, most of the time, evangelicals are fish in the ocean. Belief, especially belief in a personal relationship with God, is a background assumption of American culture. Belief is normative.

It's not actual persecution or victimization that matters. In a sense, evangelical Christianity, which models itself on a model of the early Church (especially Baptism, but I'm sure this is true of non-doms too)--assumes that Christians are persecuted. Like the first Christians, they are always outsiders. Even if not socially outcast (and they are not), they perceive that they are outcasts.

This is the mindset. It's reinforced by the O'Reillys of the world . . . but it has a theological basis, if you will.

You can't defuse this, not through being nice. Because almost everyone is nice to these people almost all the time. Personal experience is not key. Belief is key. And belief is incorrigible.

So I think that this is a bad move, strategically. It's unlikely to work because it mis-understands evangelical belief. (Obama may be familiar with this mindset of persecution (?), but he may associate it with the sentiments of black folks--in his church and in the community. But white evangelicals feel as persecuted as black Christians.)

Tactically, that raises same-sex marriage. Obama has apparently decided that he can piss off gays and lesbians in the short-term because they don't have anywhere to go. Maybe. But it's almost always a mistake to anger friends to get nothing.


At 10:24 AM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Good post, although I don't completely agree. Even if you can't win over that entire community, you can peel off younger and more moderate evangels who are less wrapped up in the identity politics. There's a lot of room for pick up there, especially since, as you note, the persecution is imagined.

What I find most interesting here, (and I need to think this through for a longer post) is the relaton b/w the persecution complex and "Christendom." When evangels speak of "perscution" what they mean--I think--is that Chrisitanity is no longer recognized as the dominant, even exclusive, politico-religious culture in the US/West. But this perceived loss is at odds with the desire to be a church-primitive (pre-Romanizing, etc.).

It also conflicts, dramatically, with the exclusivist mindset that refuses to recognize that the large majority of people around them are, in fact, still "Christian," if not of the same evangelically pure and politically conservative strain that they make into the only true marker of faith. So, yeah, "Christians" will seem a persecuted minority in retreat if you define your faith very narrowly while romanticizing the sweep of past Christianity.

More later--a couple travel days ahead.


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