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Frank Schaeffer

Frank Schaeffer

Posted January 21, 2009 | 02:16 PM (EST)

Can Progressives Grow Up? (President Obama Needs the Left to Change Its Ways)


Arianna Huffington rightly discerned the central message of President Obama's inaugural address: a call for us all to grow up. Maturity is in the eye of the beholder though. I'll bet you that right wing Americans translated President Obama's call to put away "childish things" as a call for left wing Americans shape up their sexual "immorality." I'll bet you that left wing Americans heard the call as a chastisement of right wing laissez-faire banking regulations and greed. I heard something else: a call for all Americans to forgo thinking that people on the "other side" of our ideological divides are the sole initiators of all our national problems.

In other words it's a time to take a look at ourselves and stop worrying about the other guy. That is maturity. Does the left have the moral fiber to do that? I'm not sure it does.

Anyone who has read my pieces here and in various newspapers or has read my memoir Crazy For God, knows that I'm amongst the Religious Right's and the Republican's harshest critics. As a former Republican and right winger I bring a special insider's clarity to understanding just how destructive the right has been. That said...

Now that we of the progressive persuasion have won, there are some indicators that the left doesn't know how to handle victory. For instance, the incredible ideologically holier-than-thou parsing of almost all of President Obama's Cabinet appointments by the incurably panties-bunched-up-left did not bode well.

Given the resounding defeat of the Republicans, the burden is on the American left to show that it will follow our new President and adopt a new level of maturity that we haven't seen in 40 years of American politics. For instance, will the left grow up enough to stop doing things such as bitching like babies when someone such as a Rick Warren is invited to pray or otherwise participate as he was at the inauguration?

Here's the point: can the American left actually look at things as insiders instead of perpetual outsiders? Will the anarchic spirit of the 1960s re-infect this genuinely new start and once again lead to the same dead ends, as special interests and American tribalism kick in? (As in: "We thought black people were good people until they voted for Prop 8! Now, Oh my God, we don't know!)

We do know that the forces of mental dullness, led by the village idiots inclusive of Fox News, Coulter, Limbaugh etc. etc. are beyond help or hope. But the real test is going to be the Churchillian test of showing magnanimity in victory. The progressive movement has begun badly.

First President Obama wasn't "black enough" for the black left. Then he was "too centrist" in his appointments for the white left. Then he wasn't gay friendly enough.

Now Obama is President Obama, will the African-American chattering classes, the gay community, the progressive ideological-litmus-test-watch-dogs et al see themselves as part of the American community first, and everything else second?

Will Democrats be able to climb down and forgo some of their programs to more justly and equitably redistribute wealth and instead live with an economic program grounded in the reality that about 46% of the American people voted against the new President and that he needs to work with Republicans? Or would we rather be pure and lose the one-time historic chance to progress?

And here are a few other little "canaries" in the national mine that may indicate something about the left's willingness to actually jump on board. For instance; will we see ROTC enthusiastically reestablished in places like Columbia and Harvard this year? President Obama called on Columbia to do just that while he spoke on campus and the president of Columbia wrote an open letter repudiating Obama's call. So much for progressive support! We have a black, progressive commander in chief now. He wants to end the war in Iraq and shut Gitmo. Is the left on board with our military -- as of today?

There's more of course, but you get the idea. Is the left willing to abandon its well-honed, knee-jerk politics of opposition and show the maturity of embracing a politics of genuinely inclusive governance? The word "inclusive" takes on new meaning when your side is in charge! Now its up to us to do the including of people you don't like, may even hate. Have we got it in us?

And last but not least the progressive movement has one thing in common with the right wing: the left just like the right, is absolutely addicted by a dumb celebrity "culture," entertainment that distracts us from any high purpose. It will be interesting to see if -- on the web sites of the left -- from now on we'll see less celebrity-oriented nonsense of all kinds, and a little more serious grown up discussion.

We said we wanted change. Do we? The change President Obama is calling for is in us, not in someone else. Are we ready? Are we willing to say goodbye to some of our fondest pet projects and addictions and sacrifice them for the national good? If not, take off that "Change" T-shirt.

Frank Schaeffer is the author of CRAZY FOR GOD-How I Grew Up As One Of The Elect, Helped Found The Religious Right, And Lived To Take All (Or Almost All) Of It Back. Now in paperback.