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Should Progressives Engage Agents of Intolerance?

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Many progressives are disappointed that Obama chose Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration. The bestselling evangelical pastor worked hard to support Prop 8 and has equated letting gays marry with blessing incest, pedophilia and polygamy. Obama's defense is that we should engage those who disagree with us. But some people are beyond engagement, and Warren would not get a pass if he made the same comments, say, about interracial unions like that of Obama's parents.

Evaluating the Warren choice hinges, to an extent, on whether Warren should be deemed beyond the pale, and given how split the nation is on gay marriage, and Obama's own opposition to marriage equality, it seems fair to say that Warren is hardly an extremist who deserves to be dismissed for his views on homosexuality. Still that leaves the question of whether the inauguration of a president who campaigned on unity is the right place to honor such a divisive figure.

But the bigger question is this: how should progressives -- who are as confident that homosexuality is morally right as many evangelicals are that it's wrong -- respond to those who disagree with us? What should gays and lesbians say to those at our dinner tables who insist they are not prejudiced even as they work to limit our rights? Is dismissing them as bigots the answer?

First, let's get some things straight. Reason, for what it's worth, is on the side of gay marriage. The most common retort to gay marriage advocates is Warren's famous slippery-slope argument that says if gays can marry, why not siblings, children and groups? But if the best reason to oppose gay marriage is that you actually oppose something worse, that's not an argument against gay marriage, but an argument against that other thing you oppose (and not a very strong one). Resorting to the slippery slope reveals something scary for the anti-gay-marriage folks: they not only have no reason why they're against gay marriage; they have no reason why they're for marriage at all -- if they did, they could rationally explain what marriage is for, and why gay unions don't fit.

Of course some try. They cite the bible's proscriptions against homosexuality but they don't seem to care that the same bible condemns divorce, which they don't seek to ban (and celebrates polygamy). They say marriage is about procreation and gay unions don't produce children; yet they'd let infertile and childless couples wed, so long as they're straight.  They say Americans don't want gay marriage, but what a group of people wants or doesn't want doesn't always make it right -- that's why we have a Constitution that's designed to limit the tyranny of the majority. And they say that something 5000 years old shouldn't be changed; but slavery was that old and was eventually deemed wrong, and besides marriage has never stayed the same but has changed since it began. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, it is grotesque to say a law should remain in effect for no reason other than that it was so laid down during the time of Henry IV.

The reason opponents of gay marriage can sound so much like bigots is that their arguments generally come down to saying marriage should remain exclusionary because marriage has always been exclusionary.  It looks to many like they are papering over emotional resistance with rationalizations, and this is the very definition of prejudice.

Indeed, if there is a rational argument against gay marriage, I have yet to see it. And this is why Obama's invitation to Warren might just work. A major limitation to progressive thinking is our over-reliance on rational debate. Despite our instincts to bullet-point the reasons why opponents of gay rights are wrong, rational debate is not generally what creates change. As Hilary Rosen recently wrote on this blog, "The power of gay people is not in our numbers. It is in the number of people we touch. It is in families and workplaces and religious homes that allies are born and political progress is made." And to touch people, we need to share our stories with people who are in the same proverbial room. We might not even need to debate them, just show them who we are.

While the analogy between the personal setting of homes or workplaces and the political stage of an inauguration is imperfect, it's possible that the principle of engagement is, for a time, worth trying. After all, liberals are all about engagement when it comes to the international stage -- why not do the same with our fellow Americans?

Let me be clear: I was distressed by the Warren pick. It looks like a political calculation designed to win over agents of intolerance even if that means kicking in the stomach those Americans Obama promised to represent, and undermining the principles of unity and tolerance he claims to embody. Tolerance simply doesn't extend to tolerating intolerance. And so the inauguration was probably not the place to invite someone who uses religion to justify intolerance and division.

But it's done. Progressives should use the episode as a teachable moment: to remind ourselves that engagement is a principle we embrace, that reason only gets you so far in this world, and that to show--rather than tell--America why our principles are the right ones and the necessary ones, requires that all people of good faith be seated at the table. Whether Rick Warren is one of those people God only knows.