Obama’s Leadership on Health Care and DADT

Obama seems to have disappointed liberals with his suggestions that progressives should stop hammering senators about health care, and his (lack of) speed at reforming “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” I think they are examples of astute political leadership.

First of all, even though Obama may make these suggestions, it does not mean Progressives should listen to dear leader and stop saying stuff. If anything, Obama is implying organize better. By simply not impeding progress, he is actually enabling forward movement – but the work will revolve around groups organizing popular support.

What ideological progressives forget is that good politics is not a matter of diktat. Political calculus requires constantly negotiating between different competing interests. For this reason, Obama’s comments to progressives should be seen as shoring up as many favors and political capital as he possibly can among conservative Democrats. And it seems to be working. He has an impressive number of victories. Obama is carrying out his agenda with steady, if slow, progress, laying down a solid foundation for future political victories. He understands that politics is not done by shouting ideological platitudes at people. It’s done by building relationships. By showing loyalty to conservative democrats, he builds good will with them – capital he can spend later. It is a smart maneuver on his part.

It does not mean we should obey him.

If Obama presses too hard on DADT at this time, he may force conflict in a fashion that will undermine his tenuous relationship with the military establishment. If he were to push DADT now, he risks both losing that battle and making it impossible in the future to manage other important political issues, such as curtailing defense spending. He has stated his position about DADT clearly already: it will end. But he will do it when he has his ducks lined in a row so that other important policies don’t get sacrificed.

This does not mean we should stop complaining. Not at all. I believe that Obama expects and desires that we organize. In fact, by being temperamentally conservative, he helps progressives avoid political complacency – which is exactly what happened under Clinton. They should not be frustrated that the organizer in chief is as conservative as he seems.

His implicit message: continue organizing. It is enough that we have a president that will listen.

Obama at Notre Dame

The problem is not abortion: it is capitalism. Although I am pro-choice, it is because I disagree that criminalizing women would actually encourage restraint. I post this as someone who believes, also, that a commercial society is a free society. But the biggest threat to churches is capitalism.

From the conservative commentator Patrick Deneen.

Catholicism is a religion of memory and tradition: at every mass we recall the saints and martyrs, the founders of the Church and its greatest heroes – inculcating as if by second nature a familiarity with past generations and our expectation for ones that follow. As Chesterton wrote, we must inhabit a democracy of “the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born.” A Catholic culture is replete with stories passed down from the past and conveyed to the future – after all, we have all the best storytellers, from Dante and Shakespeare (yes, he was) to Percy and O’Connor – and, of course, Chesterton. All this is to say, the dead and the not-yet-born live among us – they are not forgotten or ignored, but among us as sure as the people who share our lives in neighborhoods and communities. This was precisely the point of Jody’s fine essay on why we need to live near cemeteries. Most of us, however, are in living arrangements where the dead are kept distant and apart from us – just as we separate all of the various aspects of life, disaggregating shopping from work from recreation from home. And even in the home, we are likely to be texting or emailing Facebook “friends” or hanging on the edge of our seats to see who gets kicked off American Idol. Much of the time, we are not even home when we are home.

A Catholic culture would inculcate a certain kind of character: one of respect, self-restraint, responsibility, humility, thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice. Courtship and marriage would be encouraged among the young. Divorce would be well-nigh non-existent. Such a culture would not valorize materialism, but understand that things of this world is not to be wholly embraced. At the heart of our culture would not be – as Jody suggests – opposition to abortion – which is, after all, negative – but rather the things that abortion is not: family, Church, community, memory, tradition, continuity of past, present and future. Culture is affirmation, not simply denial.

Our culture is driven by a different ethic altogether: mobility, markers of material or political success, a fetish for technological innovation and distraction, a media that is almost wholly visual and which portrays no past and no future (Read Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, especially his chapter “Now, this…”), a valorization of choice in ALL things hourly reinforced by advertising that is ubiquitous and insidious. Our culture is one in which previous generations are forgotten – an acceptable price of progress – and even the relationship of parents to children is either chummy friendliness or marked by the knowing sarcasm and irony of youth toward obsolescence (just watch an hour of the Disney channel for confirmation). The abortion of children is to be expected as a consequence of THIS culture: in a culture in which I define my own future in accordance with will and desire, and in which that which is personally inconvenient to me is as disposable as most everything else I use for my convenience everyday, sex is a consumer product and abortion is the trash. Disenchantment and utility defines my relationship to ALL things, in the end.

Obama’s Skillz

Politico notes that Obama seems to be skating through Republican Rage. Here are eleven reasons Obama has so far been successful in managing the various thunderstorms around his presidency.

1) Don’t spend political capital on losing battles. Gun control is a losing battle. The “fairness doctrine” is a losing battle. Don’t fret or worry about it.
2) Let others spend their political capital first. For example, let the army spend political capital on same-sex marriages. Get outside organizations to make suggestions first.
3) Enact “low hanging fruit.” Change policies that don’t require a lot of input from outside bodies or authorities. Structure internal procedures differently. This opens up spaces for political action to change.
4) Have a clear sense of role. The president isn’t going to pass legislation. The president can change executive orders. Sometimes all the president is doing is shaking hands. Other times the executive is describing a vision.
5) Stay cool. Michell Malkin likes to get hot and wants the president to declare “we don’t negotiate with terrorists.” In the movies, that’s a great sentiment. But as Obama notes:
6) Success speaks louder than words.
7) State the vision, loudly, forcefully.
8) Speak their language. This means talking the language of responsibility and caring; not just numbers. He speaks as “compassionate conservatives” spoke, with authority.
9) No permanent enemies. It’s just politics. He listens, though he might not agree.
10) Be conservative, until work needs to be done. For example, don’t legalize pot until there is a practical opening for change. Work within the institutions available. The “conservative temperament” looks like a virtue peculiar to our time and age: patience.
11) Obama does his homework.

Obama is the master gardener-politician of our age. He is right now, just planting the seeds he can. His style will be the model for leadership for many generations.

Warren Gets the Left’s Knickers in a Twist

Fellow leftists, please, step back for a moment.  It’s not that horrible.  Really.

Don’t be one of those easily offended right-wing freaks.   Warren’s selection to give the invocation does not mean Obama’s going to force women to have babies and gay people to live in sin.  That’s not what Warren represents to Obama, and that’s not what he should represent to us.

We – progressive Christians – should take his selection as a message.  Or several messages.

One is that we’d better get our act together.

Mainline churches are dying, burdened by expensive buildings, unable to build community in communities that need it, and too committed to our own personal liturgical preferences.  We might love gay people, have sanctuary churches, and feed the poor, but we’re not particularly welcoming in plenty of other ways.   Secular Progressives generally aren’t impressed by us.  And our churches are just getting smaller.  So there is no reason why Obama should listen to us.  We’re becoming irrelevant.

Warren, on the other hand, walks the walk:  he builds community.  He offers people meaning.  He teaches people to connect with other people.  He is much like Obama in that he is a community organizer.  If we want to be able to represent the way we love Christ, then progressive churches better rediscover what it means to be embedded in our communities.  If we want the sort of authority that Warren has, worldwide, then perhaps we might build relationships also.  Because that is what Warren does.  We have to learn from him.  We don’t have to like his theology, but his actions say more than his words.

Remember, also, the relationship between any pastor and politician has plenty of dangerous pitfalls – especially for the pastor.  Usually in the battle between the bishop and king, the king wins.  For this reason, this is much more of a danger for Warren than it is for Obama.  The religious right should have learned this:  after eight years of supporting Bush, they didn’t get very far.   Of course, the traditional NCC based Christians fared worse – in part because they expect kings to listen to them.  In spite of every mainline denomination, except the Southern Baptists, opposing the war in Iraq, Bush went anyway.

Obama and Warren can talk all they want, but Obama doesn’t need to change his views about anything.  He won’t.  Conservative evangelicals didn’t vote for him, so he’s not losing anything.  He’s not changed his personal views about abortion or sexuality.  He’s not suddenly become an evangelical.  He does understand, however, that Warren is one of the few pastors that makes the church relevant.

Even for me, a leftist priest, Warren’s suggestions and work are useful.  Not his theology, which has no appeal to me or my congregation, but his understanding of what communities need.  Warren cares about lively, thriving communities, and thriving persons.  A number of people have entered my progressive church after reading his book, The Purpose Driven Life. They want to contribute to their communities and make people’s lives better.

I suspect that Obama knows that Christian progressives are weak.  Because progressive churches generally don’t have anyone in them, the broad church “left” has no political power.  Until progressives generally see churches as opportunities, rather than as enemies, and until mainline churches start truly listening to their communities, Obama is doing a wise thing.  He has made formal obesiance to the most important evangelical in the country.  And by doing this he is simultaneously diminishing Warren’s credibility with the freeper, moonbat wing of the party.

He is further dividing the evangelical base.

Second, just because Warren opposes abortion and homosexual rights doesn’t mean he will have the political capital, or use his political capital, to promote sorts of policies along these lines.  Warren’s energy  around poverty and AIDS, however, is what Obama will listen to.  Unlike other evangelicals, Warren may just decide that he can deal with Obama because he shares concerns around global poverty, which is of little interest to the those Christians who have sold their faith to the far better organized religion of tax cuts.   And although he might not change his church’s views about sexuality, it might be enough that he just stands out of the way.

This is a low-cost alliance for Obama.   There is no way in hell Obama will become anti-abortion.  The cultural trend is toward liberalization regarding sexuality.  For no matter what gay-rights activists or fundamentalists say, people just don’t give a rats ass about who other people are screwing.   They want their daughters to have access to birth control.  Most people do not want big government to criminalize the consequences of sex.  Obama’s made the calculus.  He gains through building a relationship with Warren.  Warren loses credibility among his base for building a relationship with Obama.

Progressives might pay attention:  Warren is currently on a spiritual journey in a direction that should please those who care about poverty, AIDS, and climate change.   Unlike other Prosperity Gospel Christian leaders, he is not a hypocrite.  And unlike many leftists, he is organized enough that he can actually change the world rather than complain about it.

We have little to worry about.  Although I would have loved to see Obama choose a mainline pastor give the invocation, (he chose Pastor Joseph Lowery to give the benediction) but most of them do a better job of talking rather than doing.  And they can’t offer him anything.   The liberal, mainline church is dying because its killing itself.  Secular progressives don’t care, and our own congregations don’t want to change.  Obama sees who has power within church.  And it isn’t us.

He is wise to connect with Warren.  He has, in my view, defanged him.  And there will be another powerful evangelical who will become unable to stand in his way.

Obama has Warren’s number.

Update:  Bishop Chane Speaks!  He does make a good point about Warren’s foray into discussing assassinaton.  On the other hand, all politics is local.  Remember that Obama has another strategy for the Muslim world.  It is a delicate balancing act.

Another update:  Gary Stern does a good job of listing what people love and hate.

What Obama can teach the Churches

Over the last two years, we’ve witnessed the rising of one of the most important social-political organizations since the Christian coalition became the effective foot soldiers for the Republican party: Obama’s political campaign.

The campaign should be of immense interest to mainline denominations. Not because Obama shares our political beliefs, which he may not; not because he is a Christian in a mainline church; but because the methods of community organizing hold the key for the rebirth of mainline churches.

Why did Obama campaign work? It had a clear mission. People met people: they knocked on doors; they invited; they began conversations. They told people about the Obama campaign and what it means for their communities.  Community organizing 101 is another name for evangelism, and it is what progressive churches should be doing.

It requires training. It’s hard for shy Episcopalians to meet people and get to know them. Being forward in a ingratiating and commercial way seems false and deceptive.  Becoming more public may ruffle the feathers of the reserved.  Lots of people think that religion should be private, and that public religion borders on the religulous.

But in an organization that truly cares, these concerns can be directly confronted, challenged and mitigated. Our goal is not the verbal assent to a particular proposition about Jesus or an agreement that affirms identical thought.   We do not even presume our thoughts and ideas were as pure and holy as God’s.  Instead, we merely connect with people to build bridges of trust, thereby embodying the trust that God has in us.  We say, that the church is here for them, the unchurched.

Some call them sinners.

Organizing, getting out in the field, greeting and meeting people, might raise the fears of the unchurched and non-religious.   They might worry that I’m encouraging mainline churches to proselytize like Jehovah’s witnesses or the Mormons.   They might be anxious that we will become just a mirror image of fundamentalist churches, inviting people into our peculiar cult.

The first step for us, however, is to let go of the idea that church is necessary.  We should admit that nobody is interested in church. They don’t want to go, and they won’t.  They have pressing problems in their own lives, and for many, church is experienced as parasitical, hypocritical and greedy.

For this reason, let’s not ask them to church.  It isn’t where they are.  And we’d save ourselves a lot of agony if we didn’t pretend it would be easy for us to convince them.  So let’s not do it.  Besides, if we did it for that reason, it would be more out of selfishness than for their own needs.  So when we meet people, let’s eliminate the pressure we have for feeling like we have to drag someone into church who really just has better things to do on a Sunday Morning.  It isn’t necessary.

Instead of asking people if they are saved, or have a church community, our mission is to find out where God is already leading them.  We might not even refer to the word “God.” It’s more important to discern what people are looking for so that we can better serve them, out there, the places where God is also working.

There may be a few people who decide we’re doing the right thing. A few might decide they want to be part of our meaning making institution.  Some might decide they are called to follow Christ and share the gospel.  But there aren’t any guarantees. All we can set out to do is discover our connectedness and mutual interests.  Community organizing is much more about having the church engage the community rather than shape the community for the church’s needs.  Let us be prepared when the subject of “God” or conversations about meaning come up.  Our first role is merely to make a connection.

Because God is also working outside the church to build people up.

The church has an opportunity. Just as people are deeply dissatisfied with the administration of George Bush, there is also a deep dissatisfaction with religion. People think of Christians as homophobic, judgmental, political, and naïve. As Barna has demonstrated, most people think Christians are jerks who want to people to think like they do.

We’ve seen that the idea that knowing Christ makes one a more beautiful, a more loving, a attractive sort of person is not always true.  So instead, perhaps it is time to learn from people outside our churches what a true Christianity could really look like.  Because I suspect they have promising dreams of what Heaven is.

This requires expanding our connections. We’re not good at this. I asked people in my parish how many new friends they had over the last year, the number was small: any new friends they made, they made through the church. Perhaps people in our smaller, struggling churches just don’t make friends in the community, and it’s not worth it to them to invite their friends to their church community. We should ask why.

This will not be easy. The initial challenge for us is to ask: are the stakes high for our churches? Do we have a mission that we care about? Can we describe this concretely, and with passion, comprehensibly?

Many churches have decided that their properties and their liturgy are more important than connecting to the people around them. They have spent their energy mainly on maintaining the old order rather than on offering a vision of the world that is inspiring. These churches are going to find the waters rough in the near future. For example, one priest once challenged his congregation: “Would you die for your grandchildren?” And of course, they all said yes. “Would you change your music for your grandchildren?” The response? Silence. The message: we’d rather be dead than listen to their music.   I have heard plenty of parishioners praise the joys of a small church, uninterested in the high quality of ministry that larger churches often offer.  The consequence:  churches that will remain small and die.

A change in practice will also require a new description of the priest’s role. Priests can’t be caretakers or therapists in relationship building organizations. They will set goals and hold people accountable for visiting. They will be less concerned about the building and more concerned about strengthening relationships within small groups. They identify leaders and call them to share the vision, and the mission, of their church. From these conversations, a priest may learn what role a church can actively play in a community. Priests will also and train parishioners to do the same: meet neighbors, have conversations, and identify ways to connect with the community.  And they will have to be evaluated and held accountable for their work.  No more easy sinecures.

Most important, we can build if we in the church believe what we say. I wonder if the angry conservative wing of the church have the mainline church pegged: we don’t really believe. Do we believe enough that we are making friends with the people around us? Do we believe enough that we think the communities we form are worthwhile? Are clergy sitting in offices, redoing old bulletins, waiting for our retirement, hoping that the few remaining people in our churches will help us buy a little studio when we’re finished? And are our parishioners satisfied that they have their own personal chaplain who will cater to their need to be valuable in a time of crisis?

The churches that will survive are those where the clergy are the sorts who actively train and lead communities into building each other up. It is not merely tinkering with the liturgy and changing the creed; nor is it a matter of simple advertising. It is participating in the lives of people in the community where churches grow. Can they do this? Will they? The past practice has not been encouraging.

The Obama campaign has learned to do this through hard work, strong organization and mutual accountability. The consequence? A black president, an event previously only in the furthest reaches of the popular imagination.

Churches won’t identically replicate Obama’s success. The goal of his election was short term (although surely it hasn’t felt like it); the passions rich; and the mission wasn’t merely about race or religion. There was a deep disenchantment with the current administration, and Obama tapped that.

But who knows what would be on the horizon of a church that sought to know the deepest needs, desires and prayers of the unchurched? It means doing things differently. And perhaps in this election cycle we’ve been shown how.

Perhaps we would begin to learn that people crave the Gospel. And we would learn again how to share it.