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If you want to be effective as an activist, you learn that everything is not about you. For example, you don’t have to be religious to respect other people’s religion, or to employ religious themes usefully. If your purpose is to poke people in the eye, insulting their faith may be fine; but if you want their support, you will restrain the impulse. Thus diplomacy is part of the activist toolkit.
The same goes for presidents. Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln illustrates the deal-making, arm-twisting, cajoling and occasional liberties with the truth that are part of a politician’s job. Old Abe didn’t make it to Mount Rushmore by nobly and bravely ignoring reality.
Thus it is that presidents at their inaugural ceremonies place a hand on the Bible, invite ministers to give invocations and benedictions, and use phrases like “God bless the United States of America.” I do not doubt President Obama’s sincerity in any of this, but it is politically necessary in any case. What was not necessary was for him to invite Rev. Louie Giglio to give the benediction.
When Think Progress unearthed evidence of Giglio’s anti-gay history last week following his selection by Obama’s inaugural committee, it took less than a day for Giglio to withdraw. I barely had time to sign a petition against him before he was gone. Thus, while it was hard to believe that Obama had needlessly offended a core constituency two inaugurals in a row, the incident demonstrated the influence of the Netroots, and how times have changed.
Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC observed that the Bible on which Obama will take his oath of office not only contains denunciations of homosexuality, but a long list of abominations for which the death penalty is divinely decreed. He also noted that no one follows all those commandments, otherwise they would forever be burning people at the stake.
So why don’t we dispense with the religious trappings at inaugural ceremonies altogether? One answer might be that Obama, as he noted regarding marijuana legalization, has only so much political capital and is not about to spend it on this. He is already denounced as the Antichrist by the far-right fringe without having given any provocation.
To be able to forge sustainable progress, a leader must make political calculations. The job of LGBT activists is to change those calculations in our favor, not simply bang at the gates of power. We changed the calculations with this president. Good for us, and good for him.
After Giglio’s withdrawal, John Aravosis at Americablog praised the statement by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which he said “makes it sound more like Giglio was asked to leave, rather than his having parted ways amicably.” Other positive signs from Obama are his choice of Richard Blanco as inaugural poet and a spot in the parade for the Lesbian and Gay Band Association. Symbolic gestures are no substitute for policy wins; but if lapses and shortcomings make us forget the wins we’ve already had, our political seriousness is in question.
Some of us always seem to be looking for an excuse to consign Obama to a lower circle of hell. If we are seeking results instead of mere drama, it makes more sense to proceed from a perspective of strength rather than habitually react like jilted lovers.
The LGBT movement is not finished, but we are winning. Refusing to take yes for an answer goes against our inherent purpose, which is to advance change. We will not always agree on the direction we should take or how to get there, and allies are seldom perfect. Let’s not stand on ceremony. Instead of scuttling our own boat, let’s do our best together to press our advantage.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at email@example.com.