On Civil Rights, Obama Must Lead, Not Tinker

News that Obama invited Rick Warren to say a prayer at the inauguration is a troubling sign for a president elected to be a new kind of leader.   The decision suggests that on civil rights issues, Barack Obama might be more of a tinkerer than a leader.

So far, Obama has shown himself to be a bold leader on the economy.  His proposal to spend a trillion dollars in public works projects is nothing less than visionary in the current environment.  Not all policy experts will agree with the fine print of Obama's economic appointments or proposals, but the fact that he sees investment in public works as a key to national recovery tips the Reagan era of trickle down economics over.  In a time of economic upheaval that sends people back to The Grapes of Wrath to understand what comes next, Obama's public works proposal shows real leadership.

On civil rights, however, the same cannot be said.  Rather than lead, he seems to be tinkering.

Marriage equality for gays and lesbians is not just some "social issue" akin to school uniforms, warning labels on music or smoking in restaurants.  It is the current epicenter of the civil rights movement in America.

That has not always been the case.  When Lincoln took office, the abolition of slavery was the epicenter.  When Wilson took office, the women's suffrage movement was the epicenter.  When FDR took office, poverty was the epicenter. When Kennedy took office, segregation was the epicenter.

Thinking about Obama's presidency in terms of an  'epicenter' of civil rights changes how we think about Rick Warren speaking at the inauguration.

Rick Warren is not just a pastor opposed to gay rights. He is a highly political leader of a mega-church who has compared abortion to the Holocaust and opposed marriage reform in terms equivalent to the bigoted plaintiffs in Loving v. Virginia -- the landmark 1967 civil rights case overturning anti-miscegenation marriage laws.  In an era where gay rights are the epicenter, Rick Warren is a widely recognized voice arguing against those rights. 

Translating Rick Warren into the terms of previous civil rights eras is the key to seeing why his role at Obama's inauguration is so troubling. By comparison, if this were Lincoln's inauguration, Rick Warren would have been the equivalent pro-slavery pastor giving the invocation.  If this were Wilson's inauguration, Rick Warren would have been the equivalent of an anti-women's suffrage pastor saying a prayer.  For FDR, he would have been the same as inviting a pastor opposed to rights for the poor. For Kennedy, he would have been the same as inviting a pastor who spoke out repeatedly about the dangers of desegregation. 

In each of these cases, for the president-elect to invite the a voice known for arguing against progress -- and to do so in the name of political peacemaking, as Barack Obama has done with Rick Warren -- would have revealed a tinkerer on civil rights, not a leader.

The denial of marriage rights for certain Americans is not, of course, a "social issue," as President-elect Obama has argued.  Like the denial of citizenship to African-Americans, the denial of voting rights to women, the denial of basic needs to the impoverished, and the refusal to dismantle Jim Crow laws, the denial of marriage rights is a persistent failure in our system.  It is a failure that cannot be fixed by tinkering with politics.  It can only be fixed by persistent vision and leadership. 

On this crucial subject of civil rights leadership in a flawed system,  Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall wrote the following in 1987:

I do not believe that the meaning of the Constitution was forever "fixed" at the Philadelphia Convention. Nor do I find the wisdom, foresight, and sense of justice exhibited by the Framers particularly profound. To the contrary, the government they devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war, and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today. When contemporary Americans cite "The Constitution," they invoke a concept that is vastly different from what the Framers barely began to construct two centuries ago. (T. Marshall 1987)

The lesson Marshall taught us then is still valuable, today.  To all those who argue that our nation's perfection was cast in stone from the start -- and that we must maintain all first principles if we are to survive -- you are wrong.   The government that the framers first devised was weak with contradictions from the start, and as a result we have had to go through painful periods of correction, sometimes to make it work.   Anyone saying that definitions and institutions should not be allowed to grow to achieve greater justice for all is either unaware of Marshall's wisdom or working actively to undermine it.

In the context that Marshall defined, each president is faced with a choice:  to lead the nation towards greater justice or to tinker with the current system and leave the leadership to someone else. 

If President-elect Obama wants to speak to Rick Warren under the guise of leadership on civil rights this can be done quite easily without including him in the inauguration program.  Obama can initiate a 'Civil Rights Dialogue' as president and invite Warren to come forward to air his views on that public stage. In that context, Obama can make it clear that he views Warren's anti-civil rights positions as impediments to the contemporary effort to end government sanctioned injustice. 

For now, putting Rick Warren on the inauguration dais is tantamount to leaving that civil rights leadership to someone else.  After 8 years of George W. Bush emboldening opponents to equal rights, Americans deserve a President who seizes every opportunity to champion justice for all.

And as it just so happens, that is exactly the kind of president a majority of Americans think they chose in November.

So make it right, Mr. President-elect.  Put your outreach to Warren in a context that shows your commitment to greater and greater justice in America, and take him off the inaugural program.

On civil rights, Americans are tired of tinkers.

(cross-posted from Frameshop