Kathryn Kolbert, President of People for the American Way (PFAW) has strongly denounced President-elect Obama’s invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the upcoming Inauguration ceremony. She wrote, “We strongly agree with President-elect Obama that everyone should have a seat at the table, but only those who treat others with respect should get a seat of honor.”
Liberals are annoyed that even though the Republican brand was so soundly rejected this year, Obama is not permitting them any schadenfreude. He wants it known that everyone deserves a place at his table and Kathryn Kolbert and others will not have any of it. Kolbert and her allies are putting Obama in a difficult and unenviable position. He can run from the problem they have presented to him, but he cannot hide.
There are two ways a president can try to unite a country to avoid conflict between opposing camps – but on issues on which people fundamentally differ, both are merely delay tactics. A president can either choose to take no position, or he can actively embrace the opinions of those that disagree with him. In performing the former, he becomes a Referee, holding back his views, or perhaps even disciplining himself to have none. The president becomes an impartial interest broker with no explicit stake in the outcome of politics. In performing the latter, the president becomes the Great Equivocator. Though he has an opinion and it may be public, he embraces the legitimacy of other views and attempts to make them consistent with his own. Abraham Lincoln tried, unsuccessfully, to be the former, and Barack Obama is attempting to be the latter.
Abraham Lincoln in his first inaugural address played the first role of Referee, saying, "I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so." The Abraham Lincoln of 1861 did not take a stand, and he did not take sides. He has been criticized for this, perhaps unfairly, because the Referee is really no different from the Great Equivocator.
No president can get by today by playing Referee. We demand that our leaders take a stand. Ironically, in forcing our presidents to take a stand, they have become our Great Equivocators. Great Equivocators do take a stand, but the content of what they stand for has become so diluted and neutered that they might as well have taken no stand at all. Exactly what Barack Obama’s stand is as regards gays and lesbians remains unclear despite his deceptively assertive tone. When asked to defend his invitation to Warren, he seemed upfront, saying, "let me start by talking about my own views. I think that it is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans. It is something that I have been consistent on, and something that I contend -- intend to continue to be consistent on during my presidency.”
The president-elect doth protest too much in his declaration that he is “consistent” and “intend(s) to continue to be consistent.” Why repeat the obvious unless it is not? Rick Warren has similarly commented on Obama’s invitation with a platitude of equally confounding proportions, telling reporters that "you don't have to see eye to eye to walk hand in hand." He “loves gays and straights” alike, he continued. In a synergistic moment of mutual love, Warren and Obama have swept their differences under the rug with meaningless words.
While these empty statements communicate nothing, they reveal quite a bit. For Rick Warren, his words reveal an understandable vainglory. Few pastors would turn down an invitation to give the invocation at a presidential inauguration; the honor is probably worth the heresy. Obama, in extending the invitation to Warren, is signaling that Warren’s views on gays and lesbians are not repugnant enough for him to be ineligible for the invocation job. In this Obama is saying that Warren represents a legitimate and reasonable point of view. We should not be fooled to think that this represents a solution of the problem. Setting up two opposing worldviews in legitimate contrast to each other is only the overture of a contest of values to come. At some point, the clash must and will occur.
Like the first president who invited a team of rivals to form his cabinet and tried impartially to referee opposing points of view, Obama is merely buying time in his equivocation. But a house undecided cannot stand. In taking a side but also embracing another, Obama is attempting the impossible and liberals are calling him out on it. It takes a while for political impartiality and argumentative elision to dissipate, but in time, the people - of diametrically opposing opinions, one should add - will demand an answer from their government. Both the Referee and the Great Equivocator are politicians playing the highest (or the lowest) arts of politics, but these tricks can only buy time. For better or for worse, the expectations of leadership shall be foisted on Obama. At some point, he will have to take a real and politically consequential stand on matters that divide our country.