Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

[Note: This is admittedly a very long diary. I sort of got carried away with setting up the discussion. The beginning may seem excessively academic, but I thought it might be helpful. If you hate moral and political philosophy, you will find this to be the most boring discussion of sex you've ever read. For those of you without patience, you may want to get directly to the meat of my argument, which picks up roughly after the first blockquote.]

I imagine most of you have had your fill as it concerns the recent Donnie McClurkin dust-up, but I'm not quite ready to bury it just yet. On the other hand, I have no interest in simply revisiting the same old flame war. Instead, my concerns are more abstract, you might say. Basically, I'd like to address what strikes me as an anti-liberal element underlying the outrage/criticism directed at Obama. However, this diary isn't just written in defense of Obama. Clinton, too, has faced similar criticism as a result of her association with Reverend Harold Mayberry (who evidently has preached against homosexuality to his congregation. So, although I focus specifically on the McClurkin situation, my argument is directed at a trend that concerns all the candidates and, more fundamentally, the terms of our social co-existence in general. In short, this isn't the occasion for partisan warfare.

I assume everyone knows the basic story, but I'll offer a brief summary. The Obama campaign will be hosting three gospel concerts in South Carolina this weekend "to bring South Carolinians together for a few evenings of song and praise." The controversy surrounds grammy-award winning singer Donnie McClurkin, who is one the singers scheduled to perform at the Columbia, SC show. McClurkin, according to Wikipedia, "has spoken out against homosexuality on several occasions" and believes that "homosexuality is not God's intention" and that one can "be delivered from homosexuality through the power and grace of God." (I should also add that McClurkin, in recent phone interview stated that "he does not believe in discriminating against homosexuals.") In response to the controversy, Obama issued a statement denouncing McClurkin's views and affirming his support for objectives important to the gay community; moreover, all indications are that McClurkin is only there to sing.

Obama's statement notwithstanding, this has angered some in the gay community. I have even seen some declare that this is a "deal-killer"; or, even more strongly, some have announced that they wouldn't even vote for Obama in the general election. I must admit that this reaction puzzles me and, as this diary indicates, has motivated me to consider the social/political/moral significance of such a reaction.

A good place to start, I suppose, is with a thought expressed by MyDD's own Todd Beeton on Monday, to wit: "The paradox of running a campaign based on inclusion is that you're more than likely going to alienate somebody at some point based on who you're including." I think that's a fair assessment of the tension that inevitably confronts the effort to attract broad political support from a pluralistic electorate. It seems odd, though, to maintain that this problem uniquely afflicts Obama. A political order "based on inclusion" is essential element of liberalism. To put it another way, any candidate worthy of the term "liberal" is going to invite this kind of tension. Indeed, if there is one organizing theme that characterizes modern liberal political philosophy, it is the rejection of partiality as it concerns the diverse, irreconcilable personal doctrines which invariably exist in a pluralistic society. We accept as granted what philosopher John Rawls called "the fact of reasonable pluralism" and aim to determine fair principles of cooperation on which ALL reasonable people could agree, assuming they are reasonably committed to cooperation for mutual advantage (see here if you're interested in the particulars of this Rawlsian take on liberalism).

Conversely, liberals have traditionally rejected as tyrannical and oppressive strong forms of perfectionism that insist on allegiance to a single comprehensive conception of the good. If political legitimacy requires broad consensus among citizens affirming a plurality of irreconcilable moral, religious, and philosophical doctrines, then the most contentious issues among us will remain unresolved in the public sphere. Thus, liberalism is forever faced with the challenge of finding common ground between deeply divided people. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more inclined to just tell some groups to go to hell (witness the Republican NAACP debate, where only 3 of the 8 candidates showed up).

Anyway, as I've been saying, people invariably hold a wide range of conflicting conceptions of the good and reality that can't be resolved by reference to an agreed-upon epistemic framework. Certainly, religion comes to mind, but the problem is more extensive than religious disagreement. Relevant to this diary are the intractable divisions surrounding the subject of sexual morality. As philosopher Thomas Nagel once wrote, "We will never reach a point at which nothing that anyone does disgusts anyone else. We can expect to remain in a sexual world deeply divided by various lines of imaginative incomprehension and disapproval." No matter how open-minded you may claim to be, a few curious minutes on the internet will reveal your ability to be disgusted by the consensual sexual acts of others.

That is not to say, however, that a liberal social order is helpless to deal with conflicts of this sort. On the contrary, a liberal society carves out a sphere of autonomy for its citizens (assuming a certain threshold of competence, awareness, and rationality is met, of course). Moreover, the requirement of public justification--so-called liberal neutralit--prevents governments from favoring types of sexual relationships over others. Finally, principles of equality of opportunity justify laws preventing employers (among others) from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation (with some obvious exemptions to protect freedom of association). These principle, of course, involve correlative rights protecting citizens' liberty of conscience (among other liberties), allowing citizens to disagree/disapprove of homosexuality. More related to that later.

As it concerns these matters, Obama's record is able to withstand any kind of harsh criticism. In an article in "Lesbian Life," a review of Obama's strong record on LGBT issues is presented:

Barack Obama and Gay Rights in Illinois: Barack Obama supported gay rights during his Illinois Senate tenure. He sponsored legislation in Illinois that would ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

. . . .

Barack Obama on Hate Crimes: Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to expand federal hate crimes laws to include crimes perpetrated because of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Employment Non-Discrimination: Barack Obama supports the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and believes it should be expanded to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell - Gays in the Military: Barack Obama believes we need to repeal the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. His campaign literature says, "The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve."

Co-Sponoring Legislation: Barack Obama, in line with HRC [Human Rights Campaign], co-sponsored legislation to bring Medicaid coverage to low-income, HIV-positive Americans and the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act which would expand federal jurisdiction to reach serious, violent hate crimes perpetrated because of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability of the victim.

He also supports civil unions, though he regrettably does not support gay marriage. He has stated that individual states may decide whether to legalize full gay marriage. Finally, I'll add that he received as score of 89% on HRC's scorecard (see prior link). I don't know the comparative scores, but I doubt anyone but Kucinich and Gravel are significantly higher. (Bill Clinton, to be sure, signed DOMA into law.)

In any case, the criticism of Obama cannot justifiably be attributed to the public policies that he supports and espouses. Nor has he sought the endorsement or advice of McClurkin. No, Obama is suddenly unacceptable because his campaign hired a Grammy award-winning gospel singer who happens to believe that homosexual conduct is contrary to God's intention and that one's sexual orientation can be re-oriented, so to speak, through spiritual engagement of some kind.

Now, as I've hinted, this reaction seems completely inappropriate to me. Don't get me wrong. I fully support gay rights, including marriage (although I kind of wish the government would stay out the marriage business altogether). I don't think there is anything remotely objectionable about same-sex relationships. So, don't get the impression that I'm defending McClurkin's views. I am emphatically not. What bothers me is insistence by certain activists that Obama's campaign avoid even tenuous association with those who disagree with gay sexual practices.

Although most of my preliminary remarks have related to the limited reach of political agreement, I think similar limitations apply to social interaction more generally. Thomas Nagel, a philosopher to whom I've referred already, published a great essay years ago called "Concealment and Exposure" in which he argues this point quite effectively (the essay itself isn't exactly on point, but I highly recommend it to everyone with a brain.). Early in the essay he writes:

There is an analogy between the familiar problem that liberalism addresses in political theory, of how to join together individuals with conflicting interests and a plurality of values, under a common system of law that serves their collective interests equitably without destroying their autonomy -- and the purely social problem of defining conventions of reticence and privacy that allow people to interact peacefully in public. . . .

I think there is a natural way in which a more comprehensive liberal respect for individual autonomy would express itself through social conventions, as opposed to legal rules. In both cases a delicate balance has to be struck, and it is possible in both cases to err in the direction of too much or too little restraint . . . .

In culture as in law, the partisans of particular conceptions of personal morality and the ends of life should be reluctant to try to control the public domain for their own purposes. Even though cultural norms are not coercive in the way that law is, the public culture is a common resource that affects us all, and some consideration of the rights of members should operate as a restraint on its specificity. We owe it to one another to want the public space to preserve a character neutral enough to allow those from whom we differ radically to inhabit it comfortably -- and that means a culture that is publicly reticent, if possible, and not just tolerant of diversity. Pluralism and privacy should be protected not only against legal interference but more informally against the invasiveness of a public culture that insists on settling too many questions.

The natural objection to this elevation of reticence is that it is too protective of the status quo, and that it gives a kind of cultural veto to conservative forces who will resent any disruption. Those who favor confrontation and invasion of privacy think it necessary to overthrow pernicious conventions like the double standard of sexual conduct, and the unmentionability of homosexuality. To attack harmful prejudices, it is necessary to give offense by overturning the conventions of reticence that help to support them.

Against this, my position is in a sense conservative, though it is motivated by liberal principles. While we should insist on the protection of individual rights of personal freedom, I believe we should not insist on confrontation in the public space over different attitudes about the conduct of personal life. To the extent possible, and the extent compatible with the protection of private rights, it would be better if these battles for the soul of the culture were avoided, and no collective response required. Best would be a regime of private freedom combined with public or collective neutrality.

Although Nagel's essay is primarily about sex, I think broadening its reach adds some perspective to the McClurkin episode. Specifically, because I think there is a stronger tradition in our political culture of respecting conflicting religious beliefs, I would like to look at that as a model.

I should note right away I am an atheist (of a softer variety) who has lived in South Carolina for most of my life--including now. This has presented a problem or two since many in my family are deeply religious--particularly my mom's side of the family. In no uncertain terms, members of my family have expressed their sincere belief that I'm going to hell, absent any conversion before judgment day. Lest this seem like a bunch of self-pity, I should add that my family has been generous in its love for me. However, my grandmother believes the good book (and her minister) with every fiber of her being and is quite sincerely concerned for my soul. I have to respect that to some extent. I doubt I could ever shake her faith, and frankly, her sense of purpose and identity is so wrapped up in that understanding at this point that I don't dare question it to her face. She likewise hasn't broached the subject for years (although she still occasionally asks me to say "blessings" before dinner when I go see her--and I do it for her, rather clumsily). It's no coincidence that polite and politics have so many similar letters.

Now, I hate to be so prejudicial, but I imagine many on that gospel stage believe that God will punish me eternally for my beliefs. As do the majority of Christians in the country.
Accordingly, I see no relevant difference between my position and that of the gay community. Many of the attendees at Obama's gospel event--not to mention millions of Christians across the nation--probably believe I'm damned to hell. My question is, would it seem excessive for me and fellow atheists to demand that Obama avoid any affiliation with Christians who hold this view of non-believers? That would include at least 50% of the country, I would bet. Were he to honor such a request, then he would certainly ruin his chances at a nomination. But more importantly, he would be effectively dismissing half the people a president is obliged to serve. Admittedly, he would be wrong to favor a religious group--by, say, implementing Christian-specific educational initiatives--but he still must engage them in the political process. Liberal democracy requires it. Reaching out to Christians should not offend me, an atheist, though giving them priority should. Likewise, including a gospel singer unfriendly to same-sex relationships at a campaign event should not offend gay people.

But, I fear I'm mixing up two distinct objections I have: (1) Politicians have an obligation to govern the entire citizenry impartially--and inclusively--such that demanding of politicians that they disavow association with large portions of the electorate promotes illegitimate governance; and (2) Because disagreement/disapproval regarding sexual practices will forever divide a pluralistic society, it is childish and unreasonable to demand that everyone reach a consensus on such matters. Moreover, such an effort displays an eerie similarity to thought control by conditioning cooperation upon submission to orthodoxy.

This is a dangerous and illiberal way to handle our differences. Where does it end? I'm also an animal rights advocated. That's right, I think pigs have rights. Is it a deal-killer that Obama, Edwards, Clinton, etc. eat meat? Do I have to vote for the vegan Kucinich? Should I not vote for Hillary because Timbaland held a fundraiser for her? I'm sure some interest group would cry foul over these lyrics.  Perhaps there are some kinds of associations that should not be tolerated, but I think it would have to be far more egregious than this (the person, I think, would have to be pro-violence or something).

But, a look at this particular case is reveals mitigating factors, to say the least. I don't know this McClurkin fellow all that well, but his story is a haunting one. He was raped at a very young age by his uncle, on the night of his younger brother's funeral. He suffered further sexual abuse throughout the course of his formative years. All of this coincided with his heavy involvement with the church. So, it doesn't surprise me that his faith played an important role in the way he sought to escape the hell to which he'd been exposed. His view of sexuality is unsurprisingly controversial, given this background. Add to that the influence of traditional church teachings, and another level of complexity appears. Even if you disagree with his beliefs, it's takes a callous mind to just dismiss him as pure evil, unworthy of any empathy.

But, the cost to a liberal vision is the point to hammer home. Here we have a man opposed to homosexual practices who is willing to perform for Obama's political benefit--despite Obama's public support of gay rights, and despite McClurkin's reported affiliation with republicans in 2004. This is an opportunity to involve McClurkin (and other social conservatives who see more promise in a democratic nominee) in a conversation about equality. Yet, the loudest voices in our party right now are calling on us to throw him under the bus. I've heard similar outrage at the idea of Obama teaming up with Senator Coburn (who holds controversial social views, himself)  to pass a bill requiring disclosure of all recipients of federal funding. Here, again, there is an opportunity to find common ground and political agreement on matters that should warm progressive/liberal hearts. There are serious social costs if we continue this kind of stubborn unwillingness to coordinate with others just because they fail to commit fully to the progressive orthodoxy.

Many of us found a lot to cheer about as we listened to Obama's 2004 DNC speech about the need to overcome our differences in the service of common objectives. To me it captured the spirit of liberalism in an astonishing way. He was able to translate the cold ideas of Rawls, et al.  into a sermon worthy of MLK (well close, anyhow). And, he has put his vision into action by reaching out to every group imaginable (see the subgroups of supports on his site), letting them know that they all get a seat at the table--but not with disproportionate influence. However, by asking Obama to throw McClurkin (as well as others who sympathize with his views) under the bus over his personal sexual beliefs (even though Obama plainly rejects those views as public policy), they are asking him to choose sides rather than foster the political agreement we desperately need. That doesn't jive with the liberal ideal.

That's my view, anyway. But, what do I know. I'm going to hell.

P.S.--For a great speech Obama gave some time ago on how religion fits into the political framework, take a look here. It's hard not to come away impressed with his effort to re-introduce liberalism to religious America.

Tags: Election, McClurkin, obama (all tags)



Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

I deliberately avoid some of the pragmatic political issues involved with this case, the most obvious of which is Obama's unique relationship to the "black vote." Many have suggested that he is pandering to certain black SC voters by including McClurkin. If you mean to suggest that he deliberately chose McClurkin because of his views, then I think you betray a reckless willingness to engage in character assassination--given the absence of any evidence. If you would just suggest that he didn't remove McClurkin to avoid fallout, then that might be more plausible. However, to cave-in would have just been a pander to those protesting, so he can't really win if that's what we're going to call pandering.

Anyway, there's more to say, but I've said plenty for now.

by DPW 2007-10-26 06:10AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

Obama simply chose McClurikin because he's one of the most well-known gospel singers in America---his musical fame was the only metric Obama's camapaign considered. Period.

But I'm sick of this continual focus on black voters. Last time I checked, gay rights was hardly embraced by most folks down south. Yes, blacks and whites worship apart, but I'd wager that the typical Dem white voter in SC has less than enlighted views regarding LGBT rights.

Indeed, a majority of Democracts nationally oppose gay marriage, as do each of the presidential candidates besides K-man. Personally, I think that we're in the stone-age on this issue, and must wait for the baby-boomer generation to die off before real progress can be made.

If people were truly acting upon principle, they'd hoot and holler anytime someone opposed to gay marriage was showcased by a campaign. But they don't. Why? Because most people in the LGBT community take a practical  They know that they must engage people opposed gay marriage--a fundamental right--if they want to make progress on the issue. Just as people in the civil rights movement had to engage people opposed to, or luke warm on, the issues of racial equality.

I think that sometimes the harsh reality of being LGB or T in today's world calls out for some semblance of cathartic relief from time to time. I think this pile on Obama is one such manifestation--and expression of the everyday perpetual unfairness that non-hetero Americans must put up with. Yes, the outrage is genuine, but I beleive that Obama has unfairly become a singular focus for people wanting to vent about overall societal unfairness on this score.

I don't blame them, but I reject the notion that Obama should be the focus of their outrage, especially in light of the fact that his track record of LGBT rights in no better or worse than the Dem party at large.

by NewNoir 2007-10-26 07:31AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

I'm with you regarding the focus on black voters--namely, the effort to paint them as extraordinarily homophobic. The large majority of Christians believe it is wrong, and many non-christians have their issues as well. Indeed, I think discomfort with gay love has more to do with needlessly rigid gender norms than religious beliefs.  

by DPW 2007-10-26 08:04AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

Who's trying to paint all African-Americans as homophobic? I see this actually coming from Obama supporters more than anyone when they try to defend Obama's behavior as pragmatic.

I'm not saying that there aren't others that are doing this, too, but I haven't seen them.

by clarkent 2007-10-26 09:08AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

I may have overstated the situation a little. But, I've noticed this moreso in the mainstream media's coverage. For instance, on Tucker yesterday, Bill Press and Michael Crowley consistently kept referring to homophobia among the religious black demographic, never mentioning the existence of socially conservative white democratic voters who likely oppose "gay rights." Sadly, Tucker was the reasonable one in that discussion yesterday, in my view. He defended Obama on grounds similar to those expressed in my diary.

Also, here's another example of what I have in mind. I think NewNoir is correct that this limited focus on black christians is odd given the correspondence with white christians.

I agree with you that Obama supporters have contributed to this problem as well in attempts to defend him, including myself on one occasion.

by DPW 2007-10-26 09:19AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

As an African-American, I have no problem admitting that a critical mass of the "black community"--whatever that is--is homophobic. This is largely the case, however, because blacks are still centered in the Southeastern United States and belong to socially conservative religious sects. Whites of the same profile, are equally as homophobic. Blacks falling outside this profile, tend not to be homophobic to the same degree.

I think that some people are particularly inscensed by black homophobia--as opposed to generic/white homophobia--because of an understandable sentiment that blacks ought to understand the plight of LGBT Americans. Personally, I can appreciate that. My support of 100% equal right for LGBT citizens, however, as 0% to do with my blackness or any sense of solidarity/special responsibility as historically oppressed peoples. In otherwords, as a black man, I owe nothing more to anyone on the basis of the history of my race. My responsibility towards LGBT American, rather, comes from my social conscience as a human being. I reject any notion that blacks owe anymore than white folks do in this struggle.

by NewNoir 2007-10-26 11:00AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

I agree with DPW 100%.

by allmiview 2007-10-26 07:41AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

Thank you for writing this.  I agree with you completely and have been struggling to put my thoughts into words.  

by wisconsinJessica 2007-10-26 08:23AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

You're very welcome.

David Velleman, who used to run the group blog Left2Right, wrote a great post back when that was in operation dealing (roughly) with this issue. Unfortunately, his post is no longer up at that site, as far I can tell, or I would link to it.  

Left2Right was an ideal blog, but it lost its energy after about a year. It was basically a bunch of liberal philosophers interested in starting a dialog with conservatives after we lost to Bush in 2004. The discussions were uniquely spirited, despite the occasional flame war.

by DPW 2007-10-26 08:43AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

Partly, maybe, but I think it's also about establishing credibility among the AA electorate. He's had to deal with a kind of skepticism that doesn't plague Hillary. Also, Obama's strategy is very much about groups with similar interests translating their shared passion for one thing into support for him. And, related to that, I think he wants everyone to see their individuality in his campaign. I do a little volunteer work for the campaign, and it's surprising how decentralized it is (with all the different "groups for Obama"), yet organized and on message. Very positive, motivated people, as well. So, that helps it work effectively.

He hasn't courted the normal special interest groups for a couple of reasons: (1) he knows that it's a tough battle against Clinton's establishment support (although Edwards has done really well with some unions); and (2) his consensus politics prevents him from making pandering too strongly to a few specific interest groups.  

by DPW 2007-10-26 10:13AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

Just don't let McClurkin perform..Obamas campaign has bigger things to worry about than this.
McClurkin is apparently the biggest joke in the Carolinas gay community. Everyone knows hes never stopped being gay no matter what he says publicly.

This is a fight within the gay community between those who accept who they are and those that pretend not to publicly. Just throw McClurkin under the bus and stay out of this internal fight.

by joachim 2007-10-26 10:39AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

I think McClurkin lives in New York, not South Carolina, so I don't this insider knowledge really exists. But, even so, the whole point of the diary is that it's wrong for those protesting to even ask that he been thrown under the bus. It's like me, as an atheist, demanding that Obama not associate with Christians. Many Christians view atheists just as harshly as, if not more harshly than, the LGBT folks.

The problem I'm addressing, primarily, is that people are being culturally illiberal by demanding that everyone be okay with their sexual lives. People are entitled to be disgusted by my choice in sexual partners. Whether others give my sex life a blessing shouldn't concern me so long as my personal freedoms and opportunities are protected.

by DPW 2007-10-26 10:56AM | 0 recs
He should dump McClurkin.

Just tell the guy to beat it. This is a mistake.

by bookgrl 2007-10-26 10:46AM | 0 recs
Re: He should dump McClurkin.

Is that all you got? Do you not have a problem with people demanding that everyone accept their sexual behavior? So long as the appropriate public policy is in place, people should not be demonized for their beliefs about sexuality, just like they shouldn't be demonized for religious beliefs, etc.

by DPW 2007-10-26 10:59AM | 0 recs
Re: He should dump McClurkin.

Why am I a bigot? Did you read the fucking diary? You respond to none of the actual arguments, which I try to demonstrate are basedg on solid liberal principles. If my argument goes astray, show me where. You evidently are the intended audience for my argument, so you should be eager to dissect my logic. Prove to me you have the slightest concern for the liberal principles expressed in the diary. Tell me why it is necessary that everyone reach agreement on everything--why everything must be subjected to public adjudication and final resolution--and what reasons I should have to believe it is even possible, particularly with respect to sexual approval.

Hell, just demonstrate you read and understand the excerpt from Nagel's essay.

Moreover, does it not matter to you that religion underlies some of this? Do you give a shit about freedom of religion; liberty of conscience; the stabilizing effect of avoiding the constant public litigation of irreconcilable conflicts? Do you reject pluralism?

Whatever. Be a dick. But, don't call me bigot. The fact that you call me a bigot diminishes the seriousness of all your other claims. Who is it I'm treating unfairly? To whom do I owe more consideration? Who do I hate?

This diary was designed to invite a real conversation about something that should be important to liberals. You've posted four comments that reveal no interest in engaging the issue. You don't seem to give a shit about the truth. That is plain. So, what do you care about? Really.

by DPW 2007-10-26 04:42PM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

I would say that at some point the religious aspects gospel flow into the merely cultural.

by NewNoir 2007-10-26 11:04AM | 0 recs
Re: Obama, McClurkin and Liberal Reticence

Good post, DPW.

by ArkansasLib 2007-10-26 04:43PM | 0 recs


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