In 1901, near the start of his presidency, President Theodore Roosevelt invited Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House, causing a Southern, if not national, outcry. The Memphis Scimitar called it “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States.” Sound eerily familiar? Today, Barack Obama, the beneficiary, and temperamentally similar descendant of Booker Washington has found himself in Roosevelt’s role by selecting Rev. Rick Warren to officiate at his inauguration. His defense is that his decision is based on a grand sentiment of inclusiveness. But if history is any indicator, Obama’s motives are purely political. What should we do about it?
It may seem strange to say that Booker T. Washington and Rick Warren have a lot in common, but in terms of being political assets to a President, they could be brothers. In 1895, Washington offered White America a compromise in what’s now called his “Atlanta Address”: So long as whites offered blacks educational and economic opportunities, blacks wouldn’t engage in civil unrest. The speech made him into one of the most powerful politicians in the South, despite black leaders like W.E.B DuBois derisively calling him “The Great Accommodator.”
Like Washington, Rev. Warren seeks to bridge the gap between his own evangelical constituency and mainstream America and he’s been able to achieve success so far by downplaying much of the social culture war issues that dominate evangelical orthodoxy. Yes, Warren’s compared homosexuality to bestiality and claims that Jews are damned to hell, but he does so only when cornered on the issue. He’s also said that divorce is a bigger threat to straight marriage than gay marriage and his biggest theological work, The Purpose Driven Life, is far more focused on marrying Americans’ obsession with self-improvement to Christianity than it is infecting its readers with any of the standard social conservative bedbugs that evangelicals usually rely on. Like Washington, Warren is willing to drop stridency to gain mainstream acceptance.
For his part, Roosevelt invited Washington to the White House, it seems, partly out of curiosity about the man. Like the president-elect, Roosevelt had a scholar’s mind and a tendency to view an issue or person from contradictory perspectives. And like Obama, Roosevelt was a master politician. His decision to invite Washington ultimately boiled down to politics. University of Texas- Austin professor H.W. Brands writes:
“Roosevelt’s invitation to Washington to dine at the White House had little to do with Washington’s race per se, but everything to do with Washington’s role as a political boss of Southern Republicans who happened to be black.
Likewise, the outrage expressed by Southern editors and spokesmen over Roosevelt’s alleged affront to the South, while couched in the language of race, was really about political power. “White men of the South, how do you like it?” fulminated the New Orleans Times-Democrat. “White women of the South, how do you like it?”
The Richmond Times frothed over the implications of the honor Roosevelt had bestowed on Washington: “It means that the president is willing that Negroes shall mingle freely with whites in the social circle — that white women may receive attentions from negro men; it means that there is no racial reason in his opinion why whites and blacks may not marry and intermarry, why the Anglo-Saxon may not mix negro blood with his blood.
The vehemence of the Southern response gave the game away. Booker Washington had explicitly forsworn any claim to social equality, let alone the right for blacks to marry whites.
What the Southern foamers, political conservatives to a man, feared was that Washington might help the dangerously progressive Roosevelt get elected in his own right. When he did precisely that — Roosevelt fended off the conservatives at the 1904 convention and was returned to office overwhelmingly — they foamed the more.”
The parallels here are pretty fascinating, even if the players are all scrambled. Obama’s decision to invite Warren to his inauguration is also a purely political one, and also one aimed to win over conservatives, even though the President-Elect is marginally a liberal. Like Washington, Warren is the most palatable and public power of a group who are big enough to sway elections, but not yet big enough to hold a seat at the table. Obama’s clearly interested in creating a new dominant majority, not just for this election cycle, but decades into the future and winning over slightly more moderate evangelicals would go a long way to achieving that goal.
But there are stark differences between Warren and Washington as well. The civil actions that had whites so terrified in 1895 were strikes, demonstrations and protests– the sorts of things the gay community is engaging in today. The evangelical community is far more extreme in its views. Warren’s comparisons of gays and lesbians love to bestiality and pedophilia are ripped from the same violence-inciting, dehumanizing rhetoric employed by the Taliban and Hamas. The evangelical belief that they are a persecuted minority is not born out by fact. It is the people whose rights they work to deny who are the target of attacks, death threats, beatings and murders, not them. Sure, Obama’s willing to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but it’s doubtful he’d invite him to officiate his inauguration.
There’s a good case to be made for Obama inviting Warren (it will make it very hard for evangelicals to criticize Obama, for one), but it’s an argument based purely on political expediency. Roosevelt’s genius was that his political decision to invite Washington was also a moral decision. It reflected the larger narrative of Roosevelt’s career as a reformer and champion of the every man. Ultimately, Roosevelt did little for black people and after the bad press from the dinner, Washington and Roosevelt never formally spent private time together again, but it was not out of character for him to invite a black man to the White House. Obama’s decision to invite Rev. Warren is.
One of the reasons that Obama won the election over his Democratic rivals was a perception that at long last we had a candidate on the Left willing to talk about issues in moral terms and not just tactics. In Obama’s world, healthcare is a right, the economy a public trust, the education of our children a moral imperative, the dissolution of racial and gender barriers promised by the founding documents of the nation. Yet, when it comes to marriage equality, the defining civil rights issue of our time, Obama falls back on tactics. He believes that civil unions are the most politically expedient way to get gays and lesbians civil rights and despite many statements that seem to indicate that the President-elect feels that gay marriage is compatible with Christianity, telling Christians who asked that, “I would just refer them to the Sermon on the Mount, which I think is, in my mind, for my faith, more central than an obscure passage in Romans.”
We know Obama is busy preparing to take over the country come January, but the fact that he selected a major Prop. 8 supporter while remaining silent as thousands of civil rights advocates marched and demonstrated makes you wonder if Obama’s lofty rhetoric and impassioned sense of justice only applies to those things which personally effect Obama. His strength as an orator and politician is intimately tied to his ability to see things through the lens of his own personal history, but when it comes to listening to the gay community, Obama’s been largely tone deaf and indifferent.
There are a lot of calls to action being made to Obama by the gay community right now. Some are calling for Obama to disinvite Warren. Mark Segal, publisher of Philadelphia Gay News suggests that Obama include a gay pastor in the ceremony and/or have the President stop by an LGBT inaugural ball. Those who haven’t written off Obama are waiting to see whether he will do what his agenda says he will do, most notably that he will repeal DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and enact ENDA and the Matthew Shepard Act. If he does these things and does them expediently, the people angry at Obama now over Warren will forgive him, but that doesn’t mean their anger isn’t justified.
If we would ask one thing of Obama it would be that he would start speaking about marriage equality in moral terms. Denying a minority their civil rights to appeal the qualms of the majority was wrong in 1895 and it’s wrong in 2008. Obama should say so.
In later life, Booker T. Washington found himself at odds with the newly created NAACP, which was unafraid to speak loudly and forcefully for civil rights. Likewise, the gay community is abandoning the appeasement tactics of old in exchange for a direct, forceful argument that “separate but equal” is wrong, no matter how sweetly it is worded by folks like Rev. Warren. Obama asks us to disagree without being disagreeable. That’s hogwash. Discriminating against gays and lesbians is wrong and it’s a moral outrage. Obama may be a master politician, but these newbie gay activists aren’t idiots, either.
Far from shooting themselves in the foot, the louder and more visibly gays and lesbians make the argument that discrimination is wrong and that find it intolerable, oppressive and insulting, the more we help our fellow citizens examine the issue more closely. Shooting ourselves in the foot? Have you turned on the television this week? Rev. Warren and his beliefs are being discussed on every cable news program, on the nightly local news. Having lost every single time our rights have come up to a vote, gays and lesbians have nothing to lose in making our case vocally and often.
Booker T. Washington offered a compromise in 1895 and we’ll offer Obama a compromise in 2008.
Mr. Obama, want us to be less disagreeable? Want to see an end to protests? We’ll stop, just as soon as the fundamental humanity of our love is acknowledged, in all 50 states, through marriage equality for all, protection of LGBT people from discrimination and violence and the freedom to defend the country we love without having to hide who we are. Don’t do it because it’s politically smart, do it because it’s the right thing to do.
You know it is.
Originally published Dec. 23, 2008