It’s good to have friends at CNN. Press credentials are cool, and that meant live-blogging the Los Angeles Democratic Presidential Debate on January 31, 2008, at the Kodak Theater here on Hollywood Boulevard – now the Dolby Theater of course – from the press room, with all the big shots. This was the big face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, when Hillary still had a chance, but all the “Hope” posters and placards out on the street must have troubled her folks. The rest is history. She promised competence and steely strength, based on her vast experience as a consequential first lady, not some bit of fluff, and her many years as a senator, not Obama’s half-term so far. She knew stuff and she knew people – world leaders and such. Obama promised hope. He won the nomination, and then he went on to defeat John McCain – a man a vast experience and steely strength, even if he seemed a bit bloodthirsty and often a bit befuddled. Choosing Sarah Palin to run with him didn’t help much either – but the idea was that at least he really knew his stuff, and he’d slap the bad guys around until they did what America wanted them to do, or there’d be war, damn it. Obama offered hope, whatever that was, and won rather easily. Things could be different. They would be different.
The nation decided that was a good idea. They’d had enough of steely strength and war, and at home, neglect and incompetence offered as “freedom” from intrusive government. They hoped for something more from what was “their” government after all. Obama offered that hope – and now, six years later, his approval ratings are stuck in the low forties. No one is very happy with him – he keeps deferring action on immigration reform, and Iran still has nukes in the works, and Putin is still working on grabbing the rest of the Ukraine, for starters, and there’s ISIS and Ebola too, and Netanyahu calling him a fool in public, and to his face, and cops are shooting unarmed black kids dead every other week, with half of America staying they’re fine with that. What the hell happened? There’s no hope now.
Howard Fineman wonders what happened to the Barack Obama who once won over the country, but he says that there are subsets of that question:
What happened to that fresh, idealistic guy? What happened to his power and popularity in the United States? Why doesn’t he dominate the political stage the way he once did? Why isn’t he as effective as we thought he would be?
Fineman then offers some answers, like this on the Middle East:
The region that initially made him look wise now makes him look, at best, confused. His promise to end what turned out to be a nine-year war in Iraq helped win him the presidency. But while Osama bin Laden is gone, the Islamic State terrorizes people in his place. And the president who won a Nobel Prize for idealistic aims is raining bombs on Syrian territory and resisting calls to put “boots on the ground.”
And words matter:
Trained as a lawyer, Obama should be aware of the uses of ambiguity. But he makes sweeping declarations that damage his credibility. He assured all Americans that his health care plan would allow them to “keep their doctor.” It wasn’t quite true. He declared that if Syrian President Bashar Assad crossed a “red line” and used chemical weapons, the U.S. would respond severely. He did and we didn’t. Obama said that Ebola was “highly unlikely” to come to America; two weeks later a victim died in Dallas.
Of course some of the problem was Hope itself:
Obama arrived on the stage with Kennedy cool, youthful optimism, Ivy League credentials and self-evident proof that America was overcoming its “original sin.” His life story was a triumph of multiracialism and internationalism. By his very nature, he would end wars, make peace with Islam, help the downtrodden and save the U.S. and world economy. These expectations (which he did his best to stoke) were impossible to meet. He hasn’t met them. No one could.
Obama was wrong. We were wrong. There would be no wonderful post-racial age of sweetness and light in America – just the opposite, as many deeply resented that a black man was now in charge of America, a “first” they didn’t appreciate at all – and even Obama’s success with the economy was success stripped of hope:
Obama’s record here is more solid than critics and even some friends admit. His calm support for early bailouts helped prevent catastrophe. His “stimulus” worked somewhat. His team has kept the U.S. economy better positioned than most to compete (and cooperate) with China. Obama’s health care plan, though raggedly implemented, has aided millions and placed needed regulation on insurers.
He got re-elected in 2012 on this record, but still did not win enduring support. Why?
Because the rich have gotten richer while the middle class stagnates – productivity rises; real wages do not. Obama’s unspoken message is, “Without me, it would have been worse.” He’s right, but it’s hardly an inspiring slogan.
And then there’s the matter of competence and the man himself:
Obama has avoided a dramatic, Katrina-like administrative catastrophe, and his tenure has been relatively free of venal corruption. But everyday management is another matter. The rollout of his sweeping new health law was a mess, enforcement of border security has been spotty and the initial response to the Ebola outbreak was slow and low-key. The metastasizing Ebola threat could come to dominate the last two years of his term.
Fiercely proud and self-assured in public, Obama is also cautious and wary. He favors complexity over simplicity. Praised all his life for his gifts and path-breaking accomplishments, he is used to being respected even if he isn’t beloved. He likes to put others at ease and does not seek confrontation. He has climbed the greasy pole through charm and timing more than chesty combat.
His thoughtful, soothing, hopeful nature got him elected. It also made him disdainful of Congress and of unpleasant political realities in general… But the world is under siege today, making it easy to conclude that ferocity and confrontation are required.
That’s what Hillary Clinton and John McCain were saying back in 2008 – hope is nice, but you have to slap the fools around. They’re still saying that, although John McCain knows better than to run for president again, maybe. Everyone who is thinking of running for president is saying that. The Age of Hope is over. There won’t be another Obama. The new age may not be an age of despair, the opposite of hope, but it will be a return an age of nastiness, where we have to be nastier than the other guys. Howard Fineman, in these examples – and he has others – is just telling us it’s over. Obama was an anomaly.
Maybe you’ll have to look for hope elsewhere. Buy a lottery ticket. Marry that woman with her odd but lovable problems. Hope will revert to being a private matter, and it will still be foolish. That may be reading too much into what Fineman is saying here, but maybe it’s not. We got our hopes up. Now we know better. Even Obama knows better now.
There’s just the reality of things. People proud of their positions, based on their long-held beliefs, or insecure about both, aren’t going to change, no matter how much reason and charm are applied, by the most engaging of personalities. Public opinion won’t matter to them either. They’ll just dig in and double down, and it’s the same with hide-bound institutions, like the Senate, or the NRA, or the Catholic Church. Know hope? No hope is more like it.
Everyone knows that’s the way it is, but then there are occasional surprises. The new Pope is doing what Obama couldn’t do:
Gay rights groups hailed a “seismic shift” by the Catholic Church toward gays and lesbians on Monday after bishops said homosexuals had gifts to offer the church and that their partnerships, while morally problematic, provided them “precious” support.
In a preliminary report halfway through a Vatican meeting on family life, the bishops also said the church must recognize the “positive” aspects of civil unions and even Catholics who live together, with the aim of bringing them to a lifelong commitment in a church wedding.
The report summarized the closed-door debate that Pope Francis initiated to discuss a host of hot-button family issues such as marriage, divorce, homosexuality and birth control. No decisions were announced, but the tone of the report was one of almost-revolutionary acceptance rather than condemnation, and it will guide discussions until a final document is issued Saturday.
Pope Francis, who may be known one day as the Pleasant Pope, didn’t slap anyone around – like Obama, that’s not his style – but he still got the job done:
The bishops were clearly taking into account the views of the pope, whose “Who am I to judge?” comment about LGBT people signaled a new tone of welcome for the church. Their report also reflected the views of ordinary Catholics who, in responses to Vatican questionnaires in the run-up to the synod, rejected church teaching on birth control and homosexuality as outdated and irrelevant.
It did help that ordinary Catholics were telling the guys at the top that they were full of crap. Public opinion may matter more to them than that it does to our Republican Party over here, and that did the trick:
The bishops said gays had “gifts and qualities” to offer and asked rhetorically if the church was ready to provide them a welcoming place, “accepting and valuing their sexual orientation without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony.”
Perhaps something can be worked out now, and that’s a big deal:
For a 2,000-year-old institution that teaches that gay sex is “intrinsically disordered,” even posing the question was significant.
“This is a stunning change in the way the Catholic Church speaks of gay people,” said Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author. “The synod is clearly listening to the complex, real-life experiences of Catholics around the world, and seeking to address them with mercy, as Jesus did.”
The bishops repeated that gay marriage was off the table. But their report acknowledged that gay partnerships had merit.
“Without denying the moral problems connected to homosexual unions, it has to be noted that there are cases in which mutual aid to the point of sacrifice constitutes a precious support in the life of the partners,” they said.
This would be like the Republicans admitting that the basic idea of Obamacare – that things should be arranged so that every citizen would buy at least some basic form of certifiable useful health insurance, for the good of everyone – was a pretty good idea. Obama could never pull that off. Pope Francis pulled this off.
Andrew Sullivan, a gay Catholic conservative, happily married in spite of his Church, is more than pleased with this Pope:
Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI understood the power of open dialogue, which is why they did all they could to shut it down within the Catholic Church. The sensus fidelium – the insight that ordinary Catholics may have into the Christian life – was all but banished in favor of top-down control and increasingly fastidious theological certitudes. And perhaps the most striking thing so far about the Synod now going on in Rome is simply that: a venting of reality in that airless context, that, while not in opposition to church teaching, is nonetheless frank about its challenges in the modern world.
Reality is nice, and Ed Morrissey notes this:
The most intriguing part of that discussion – at least as noted in the briefing – was a call to change the language associated with those teachings [on marriage and sexuality] and find more inclusive and welcoming language instead. The specific terms that some bishops wish to stop using are “living in sin,” “intrinsically disordered,” and “contraceptive mentality.”
Each of these terms is designed to define human beings in ways that can only wound and alienate. A couple co-habiting before marriage cannot be reduced to “sin” without obliterating everything else that may be wonderful about their relationship – and that may well lead to a successful marriage that is perfectly orthodox. Suggesting that all couples who use contraception can be reduced to endorsing a “culture of death” is equally likely to push flawed human beings away from Jesus rather than toward Him. And, as for “intrinsically disordered”, Ratzinger’s prissy prose was impossible for a gay Catholic to read without feeling punched in the gut. The key to a renewal of Christianity in our age will be a shift in language, a reintroduction of the core truths of the faith with words that are not designed to wound, hurt or alienate, and that can convey truth in a positive manner for a new generation.
Language does matter, and Sullivan adds this:
Christianity is about, among many things, a defense of human dignity and a love of the family. The hierarchy – which again has no such direct experience of actually navigating the challenges of parenting, and which seems incapable of seeing gay people as “first-class citizens” – has lost sight of this. They are still bound by fear – fear of actual gay people, of our happiness and self-worth, of our living example of the complexity of human love and sexuality. They cling to arid doctrine with little appreciation of how anyone can actually live it and not, in the heterosexual world, be cruel or dismissive or discriminatory or callous, or in the homosexual world, be uniquely alone…
What we’re seeing, I think, is how the mere fact of open discussion can shift the very direction of such discussion. We saw this in Vatican II, when new currents in the world and church transformed the meeting in ways no one quite expected – and Francis’ leadership in this contrasts so powerfully with his predecessor’s. He is not telling the church what it should do or how it should change. He has simply made it impossible for the lived reality of most Catholics to be ignored or dismissed any longer.
Some things cannot be unsaid. Some testimony from actual, broken but struggling Christians can never be forgotten. Dialogue shifts minds and hearts from the bottom up, not the top down.
Let me address one of the more controversial and revolutionary aspects of this document, and one which obviously affects me deeply: the section the document actually titles:
“Welcoming homosexual persons”
Yes, you read that right. Instead of being seen as intrinsically disordered human beings naturally driven toward evil – and thereby a contaminating influence to be purged when we become visible (see the recent acts of cruelty and rigidity toward gay parishioners around the country), the church is now dedicated to welcoming gay people. You can write a long disquisition on how this changes no doctrine, but it seems to me you are missing something more profound – a total re-orientation of the church toward its gay sons and daughters. I have managed to find churches that do indeed welcome gay people; but even they rarely publicly declare that they welcome us with open arms – as we are, “her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love.”
And there’s this:
Gone are the cruel and wounding words of Benedict XVI to stigmatize us; instead we have the authentic witness of someone following Christ who came to minister to the broken and the hurt, the fragile and the strong, the people who had long been excluded from the feast – but now invited to join it as brothers and sisters – “a fraternal space” in the church. Notice too that the church is now emphasizing a pastoral “accepting and valuing” of homosexual orientation, yes, “valuing” the divine gift of our nature and our loves. Yes, the doctrine does not change. The sacrament of matrimony is intrinsically heterosexual – a position, by the way, I have long held as well. But it is possible to affirm the unique and wondrous thing of heterosexual, life-giving union without thereby assuming that gay people are somehow intrinsically driven to evil, as Benedict insisted. It is not either/or. It has always been both/and.
And look too at the positive aspects of a gay relationship: “mutual aid to the point of sacrifice.” Instead of defining us as living in sexual sin, the church is suddenly seeing all aspects of our relationships – the care for one another, the sacrifices of daily life, the mutual responsibilities for children, the love of our families, the dignity of our work, and all that makes up a commitment to one another. We are actually being seen as fully human, instead of uniquely crippled humans directed always and everywhere toward sin. And, yes, there is concern for our children as well – and their need for care and love and support.
What’s not to like? You don’t have to be a Catholic to see something extraordinary has just happened. Even an atheist can be impressed with Pope Francis’ political skills, no matter what the theology involved. This pleasant man promised hope and change, and he actually delivered, and as Thomas Roberts notes, this actually makes a difference:
What practically results from this document? Perhaps bishops will not be so quick to turn away from their schools the children of gay parents or to fire gays and lesbians involved in ministry because they are living openly with or married to a partner. Perhaps they will consider the “concrete circumstances,” as the document suggests, of people divorced and remarried and welcome them to the communion table.
A key term in Francis’s papacy from the start has been “mercy.” Application of the law and of doctrine, he preaches, must be tempered by mercy. In an earlier meditation, he said he wished the church to be “the place of God’s mercy and love, where everyone can feel themselves welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel.” That is not a recipe for cheap grace. The good life of the Gospel places some extraordinary demands on the believer.
The approach is clearly disorienting, however, to those who believe that the church must be a place where teaching and practice are absolute and immutable, where the dividing line must be clear between those who are in and those who are out.
Sullivan calls it “a depth charge against the neurosis of fundamentalism” – a nice turn of phrase. See the full discussion-thread at his site – filled with theology and church history – if that’s your thing. If it isn’t, simply note that what Howard Fineman was saying about how hope always gets mugged by reality – that hope is nice but in the real world you have to slap the fools around – isn’t always do. Sometimes you can find hope in unlikely places.