Big Tent, Uneasy Coalition

Big Tent, Uneasy Coalition

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain were invited to Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church for back-to-back conversations about where they stood on issues important to Warren and his conservative evangelical congregation. “Pastor Rick,” as Obama addressed him, asked a question that could have upended the Obama campaign: “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?” Obama understood that this question was about abortion, and his immediate reply was somewhat evasive: “Whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”

Though he went on to give a considered response to the question, that “above my pay grade” remark sounded flippant, seeming to lack the nuance and gravitas expected of a candidate who needed a good chunk of the Catholic vote in key states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. “Couldn’t he have done better than that?” was a common lament among Catholics and other pro-lifers eager to support him. He survived the remark, and in spite of his pro-choice views, Obama carried the Catholic vote into his coalition.

Another very important piece of that coalition, gay men and lesbians, had a similar shock-and-disappointment experience when California’s Proposition 8, rescinding court approval of same-sex marriages, won the “yes” vote with a plurality of African American and Hispanic voters. Though Obama favors equal rights for homosexuals and same-sex unions, he is opposed to same-sex marriage. Would he have voted for Proposition 8 had he been a resident of California? That’s unclear. But he added insult to injury when he invited Pastor Rick to offer the invocation at his inauguration; Warren, in addition to opposing gay marriage, had made several deprecatory statements about homosexuals. And for the moment, it appears that Obama has held off on lifting the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” rule. Does all of this make gays and lesbians, like Catholics and pro-lifers, another part of what could prove to be an uneasy coalition?

In a culture as deeply divided as ours has been, other Obama supporters could be equally disappointed about particular policies he chooses to change or not, to introduce or not, to support or not (there’s torture, auto emissions, food policy, Israel and Gaza, the war in Iraq, to say nothing of bailing out the banks, among many divisive issues). This is politics, after all.

Yet in a surprising way, Obama managed to elude the “politics as usual,” cynicism of those who habitually believe they must choose “the lesser of two evils,” or “hold my nose in the voting booth.” Many voters who once might never have considered him voted for him with enthusiasm. They took a leap of faith—and not just religious people. How did this happen?

Here are some conjectures along with some projections about how...