Blacks’ heavy support for the proposition banning same-sex marriage in California pointed up an awkward disjunction between progressive ideals and majority black opinion. And, similarly, Barack Obama’s choice of Rick Warren to do the invocation at his inaugural ceremony forces us to attend yet again to the sometimes discomfitingly partial overlap between Blue American bona fides and black authenticity. Discomfiting because to clutch one’s pearls at Warren’s inclusion is to revile a worldview typical among the very race who Obama’s triumph is seen as representing.
Warren opposes gay marriage; 70 percent of black voters in California supported Proposition 8. Warren is pro-life; in 2004, a Zogby poll tabulated that while about half of Americans overall were pro-life, 62 percent of blacks were.
Black Reverend Joseph Lowery, heading up the rear doing the inaugural benediction, has the positions Warren’s detractors prefer: pro-choice, in favor of gay marriage. These, however, cannot be treated as default “black” views, because so very many black people of all walks do not share them. Warren and Lowery will represent two variations on black ideology, of which the one Warren represents is arguably the dominant one.
Obama did not invite Warren as a standard-bearer for black beliefs. However, the fact that Obama considers views of Warren’s he doesn’t share as acceptable under his tent shows that Obama’s penchant for finding the middle road applies beyond policy horse-trading on the likes of ethanol and wiretapping. Rather, he will be equally tolerant of conservatism of a social nature, and crucially, this will be germane in his approach to race issues. Take his support for faith-based initiatives: for Obama to come away from community organizing in South Chicago with an aggressively secularist position while turning a blind eye to the potent role of religion in transforming poor black people’s lives would have been almost willfully unfeeling. Obama was not, as is often supposed, cynically seeking votes from the right in saying that he’d retain an office of faith-based initiatives: He was embracing a conduit to personal redemption that no truly concerned black leader could disavow.
Understandably, progressives may worry that the Christian faith that turns an ex-con around is also often a spur for supporting the likes of Proposition 8 and seeking the criminalization of abortion. No doubt, given the moral triumph of the Civil Rights revolution in teaching us to rise against bigotry, many blacks’ turfy resistance to gay people portraying their cause as a Civil Rights struggle is, frankly, embarrassing--as is the greater interest of many in decrying police officers than in the fact that nearly half of new AIDS cases each year in America are black.
However, on gay marriage, Warren is in favor of partnership rights including insurance coverage, and he has long been dedicated intensely to relief for AIDS victims in Africa. Obama assumes that his disagreements with him on certain issues are outweighed by Warren’s general commitment to helping the poor.
Do Warren’s un-PC views really merit so much agita over his participation in the inaugural? Let’s try a thought experiment: Suppose Obama had invited black megastar preacher T.D. Jakes instead. Jakes heads a 30,000 member Dallas church, reaches millions more with the television show The Potter’s Touch, and was designated “perhaps the most influential black leader in America” by The Atlantic. His church runs outreach programs as well as anti-poverty efforts in Africa. Yet like Warren, Jakes dissociates himself from those who “support abortion, homosexuality and other things I see as unscriptural.”
Still, I suspect that progressives’ reaction to Jakes’ inclusion would be vastly less indignant. Surely the justification for that view would not be that black people, shall we say, “cling to” religion because of the exigencies of their past and present. No--there would be a sense that for a black preacher, views like Jakes’s were something to let pass as “diverse,” unsurprising in a pastor of any color, with his presence as an articulate and inspiring figure in black America more important than ideological details at such a momentous event. Why must Warren be fumigated against, then? Because as a white person, he’s supposed to know better? What other difference between Warren and Jakes is so crucial?
Overall, expecting Obama to treat social conservatism as beyond the pale proposes that Obama dismiss a frame of reference typical, whether many of us like it or not, of legions of the people we’re supposed to be so excited about including in the American fabric. Black he is not, but at the inauguration ceremony next month, Rick Warren will be every bit as much in line with the black American soul as Aretha Franklin.
John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English.