Well, you wouldn't expect Christopher Hitchens to be impressed by Barack Obamas decision to ask Rick Warren to give the invocation at the new President's inauguration, would you? Sure enough, he's not pleased:
A president may by all means use his office to gain re-election, to shore up his existing base, or to attract a new one. But the day of his inauguration is not one of the days on which he should be doing that. It is an event that belongs principally to the voters and to their descendants, who are called to see that a long tradition of peaceful transition is cheerfully upheld, even in those years when the outcome is disputed. I would myself say that it doesn't need a clerical invocation at all, since, to borrow Lincoln's observation about Gettysburg, it has already been consecrated. But if we must have an officiating priest, let it be some dignified old hypocrite with no factional allegiance and not a tree-shaking huckster and publicity seeker who believes that millions of his fellow citizens are hellbound because they do not meet his own low and vulgar standards.
Well, fine. And one can see why many of Obama's admirers are dismayed by this. Nonetheless, it strikes me that too much is being made of this. Yes, Warren holds many ideas that are not shared, to put it mildly, by many of the people who first boarded the Obama bandwagon when it was, in Flann O'Brien's apt phrase, “neither popular nor profitable” to be part of that merry, now self-satisfied, band.
And yet, what value does a mere invocation have? Precious little, I'd suggest. Save, of course, for the symbolism of the matter. For sure, it sends a message: evangelicals shouldn't expect anything more from this new administration than this. Not for the first time - if, more understandably from a Democratic president's point of view - the evangelical movement are being treated as though they're just another cheap date. Obama gets to reinforce the idea of inclusion and tolerance and respect for those with whom he differs (an idea that he may well believe in earnestly himself; I don't claim that this is necessarily an overtly cynical move, merely that in practice it's likely to be such a bagatelle) without having to do anything substantive.
That's fine. After all, it's pretty much how the Bush administration treated the religious right too. You're supposed, they say, to dance with them that brung you but for all the huffing-and-puffing over "Christianism" it's striking how few victories the religious right can claim. Or rather, those victories exist on a symbolic or piecemeal level. Roe vs Wade? Secure as ever. Constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage? Not happening. Yes, there have been increases in abstinence-only education funds, but no-one should really, I think, pretend that this is a Big Deal.