The question is right there in my title, but I'm going to repeat it: What would Obama do if Obama was mad at Obama about Rick Warren?
Warren is the anti-gay-marriage pastor who Obama picked to lead a prayer at the presidential inauguration. People are pissed. People I know. People I respect. People I love.
So recently I've spent a lot of time arguing -- mostly with myself -- about what tactics and strategies make the most sense for the people who feel they've been slapped in the face by the Warren pick.
There are sensible people who look at Warren and see a man who belittled their marriages, lied about the perils California faced if it didn't pass Proposition 8, and -- in helping get gay marriage repealed -- thwarted their deepest aspirations for equality. Imagine that there was someone who'd belittled Obama, lied about him, and tried to thwart his most high-stakes aspirations. Would Obama invite that person to lead a prayer at the inauguration? The answer is no. Absolutely not. Because the Secretary of State doesn't lead inaugural prayers.
A refresher ...
Which brings us to Lesson One of what Obama would do if Obama was mad at Obama about Rick Warren. He'd move on. He'd refuse to be distracted. He'd brush the dirt off his shoulder and immediately return his focus to winning. Winning, lest we forget, has nothing to do with dictating when and where Rick Warren gets to lead prayers. Winning is about achieving durable equality for gay and lesbian couples who want the law to recognize that their bonds are every bit as legitimate as my bond with my wife.
Victory -- durable, lasting victory -- is the most powerful answer to Warren. Victory is the most powerful answer to a slap in the face from the president-elect.
Meanwhile, if Obama was mad at Obama about Rick Warren, he would be pouring huge energy into trying to solve a mystery: What in the world does the president-elect see in Rick Warren? Obama would buy a copy of The Audacity of Hope and read the long, ruthlessly introspective chapter our next president wrote about faith. In doing so, he'd come to a sentence on page 216: "Megachurch pastors like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are wielding their enormous influence to confront AIDS, Third World debt relief, and the genocide in Darfur."
Rick Warren! Right there. In the book. Out in the open. At bookstores all over America. For years. Not hiding. Not tucked away in some footnote.
After picking The Audacity of Hope -- and his own jaw -- off the ground, Obama would flip to the front of the book and confirm the copyright date.
Long before the first presidential primaries.
Obama would remind himself that this book was a best-seller, that lots of people bought it, that some of those buyers presumably read the book, that some of the people who read it were gays, lesbians, and straight supporters of gay rights. He'd wonder how he and all those other people managed to miss the fact that the President-Elect sees some real good in Rick Warren. He'd demand more of himself next time. He'd vow to do his homework from here on out.
Reading on in The Audacity of Hope, Obama would find these words:
"... no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim that they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people -- people who are made in the image of God, and who are often truer to Christ's message than those who condemn them. And I was reminded that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights. I must admit that I may have been infected with society's prejudices and predilections and attributed them to God; that Jesus' call to love one another might demand a different conclusion; and that in the years hence I may be seen as someone who was on the wrong side of history."
Obama would read those words. He'd read those words again and think about them.
Obama might conclude that those words are damning evidence that our next president is "a very tolerant, very rational-sounding sort of bigot," as recently alleged in a Time column. If so, Obama might savage the president-elect with all the tactics he picked up during his time as a community organizer. He'd refer to his old copy of Rules For Radicals by Saul Alinsky. He might heed the book's call to polarize and personalize, racheting up the rhetoric, ridiculing the president-elect, and attempting to make him and his inauguration the face of anti-gay bigotry in America.
Or instead, Obama might re-read those words in The Audacity of Hope, might think about that phrase "remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided," and might ask himself a shrewd, pragmatic question: Could a president capable of expressing such doubt and self-scrutiny end up being more useful to the marriage-equality movement than a president who reflexively scolds the American people for being a bunch of homophobic jerks?
In answering that question, Obama would need to assess whether acceptance of marriage equality is more likely to come when average Americans get yelled at enough or whether equality is more likely to come as more and more average Americans are calmly made to realize that some of their relatives, their neighbors, their business contacts, their kids' teachers, their sports heroes are gays and lesbians.
Obama would suddenly think of a passage in his old copy of Rules For Radicals, a war story told by Alinsky himself:
"I have always believed that birth control and abortion are personal rights to be exercised by the individual. If, in my early days when I organized the Back of the Yards neighborhood in Chicago, which was 95 percent Roman Catholic, I had tried to communicate this, even through the experience of the residents, whose economic plight was aggravated by large families, that would have been the end of my relationship with the community. That instant I would have been stamped as an enemy of the church and all communication would have ceased. Some years later, after establishing solid relationships, I was free to talk about anything, including birth control. I remember discussing it with the then Catholic Chancellor. ... I remember seeing five priests in the waiting room who wanted to see the chancellor, and knowing his contempt for each one of them, I ... opened the door saying, 'Take a look out there. Can you look at them and tell me you oppose birth control?' He cracked up and said, 'That's an unfair argument and you know it,' but the subject and nature of the discussion would have been unthinkable without that solid relationship."
Obama might find himself hoping that our next president is trying to cultivate just that sort of solid relationship with Rick Warren. Still, he'd also consider Frank Rich's caution this morning that our new president "may not only overestimate his ability to bridge some of our fundamental differences but also underestimate how persistent some of those differences are." But Obama would question whether such naivete is really plausible, given another fact detailed in the same Rich column: "There is comparable anger and fear on the right. David Brody, a political correspondent with the Christian Broadcasting Network, was flooded with e-mails from religious conservatives chastising Warren for accepting the invitation to the inaugural. They vilified (the president-elect) as 'pro-death' and worse because of his support for abortion rights."
Obama would welcome the information in Rich's column, remembering another pillar of Rules For Radicals: "The basic requirement for the understanding of the politics of change is to recognize the world as it is. We must work with it on its terms if we are to change it to the kind of world we would like it to be."
Obama wouldn't -- and couldn't -- know immediately what to make of Warren's willingness to stand with our "pro-death" president-elect. He'd puzzle over whether Warren and his congregants show a relative reasonableness that might eventually be cultivated into acceptance of marriage equality or whether Warren is merely the polite, presentable face of intractable bigotry.
There's no answer. Not yet. And maybe not for years.
So Obama wouldn't hope. He'd organize. He'd lead. He might use his side's most potent advantage -- sheer numbers -- by urging gays and lesbians to come out to everyone they know, so that more and more Americans would know the face of a person marginalized by gay-marriage bans. He'd innovate. He'd learn from the ingenuity of the president-elect's winning campaign. He'd re-read Rules For Radicals in its entirety.
Because how can you even consider skimming a primer on activism that includes a thorough consideration of the merits of feeding baked beans to a group of oppressed people and sending them to the symphony to inflict the stank and cacophony of their baked-bean flatulence on the affluent concert-goers?
Obama, meanwhile, would stay mindful of a central idea in Rules For Radicals: "Compromise is another word that carries shades of weakness, vacillation, betrayal of ideals, surrender of moral principles. ... But to the organizer, compromise is a key and beautiful word. ... If you start with nothing, demand 100 percent, then compromise for 30 percent, you're 30 percent ahead."
Those of us whose sense of justice cries out for marriage equality may need to compromise to achieve it. But we won't need to settle for 30 percent. Nowhere close.
The tide is with us. Unless we get distracted.
We've seen what that's like.
Rick Warren's inaugural prayer is the central front in the struggle for marriage equality in the same way that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was the central front in the War on Terror.
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