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ow32988Okay, okay. OKAY! I keep getting a drip drip drip of emails asking me to weigh in on Obama ‘s decision to invite pastor Rick Warren to give the inaugural invocation.

At first I thought it was a strange and galling. Warren is awful on several issues, though admittedly good on several others. Then, with the help of several smart commentators on the left, I began to see it very differently.

It began with the benefit of doubt. The more I observe him and learn about him, the more my opinion climbs regarding Obama’s intellect and values. Since it started quite high, that’s saying something. So when I find myself thinking he’s done something stupid, I have to take a moment to see if he’s actually figured something out that I haven’t yet.

I’m convinced that’s the case with the Warren invitation.

Most of our left-wing chatter about “change” — let’s be honest — has really meant “doing things our way for once.” But Obama and his team are thinking on a whole new level. The answer to the favorite caustic headline on progressive blogs since the Warren invite — some snide version of “THIS is Change We Can Believe In??” — is Yes, dammit, it is!

Every President-elect talks about reaching across the aisle after an election, of “healing the divisions that plague our nation,” blah blah blah. Until now they haven’t been all that serious. Oh, they’d meet with leaders from the other party to repeat their platitudes, appoint a member of the opposing party as Secretary of Feng Shui — but it always stopped at such window-dressing. Until now.

Those of us who’ve obsessively studied this man for the past two years should have seen this coming. When Obama joined the Harvard Law Review, the organization was bitterly divided between a conservative faction called the Federalist Society and…well, everyone else. From his first days on the Review, Obama (in the disbelieving words of a fellow progressive on the Review) “spent time with [members of the Federalists] socially — something I would never do.” And when he became president of the Review, Obama appointed not one, but three Federalists to top editorial positions.

Did he do this because he agreed with them? Hardly. He did it because, as the inelegant but spot-on proverb puts it, he’d rather have them inside the tent pissing out. He was in charge, but he had the confidence to allow everyone a real voice. A real voice. And it’s not just for show — as many of those in his inner circles have noted, he genuinely wants and needs to hear everyone.

Now consider the whole fracas over Obama’s expressed willingness to talk to our enemies, including Ahmadinejad. Conservatives hooted with derision: You’d be endorsing evildoers!

No, liberals replied. It’s essential to build relationships and keep communication open, especially with our enemies. Isn’t that obvious?

But now that our own issues and enemies are involved, we seem not to be able to see the same principle at work. Instead, we liberals hoot: You’re endorsing evildoers!

For all his wrongheadedness on key issues, Rick Warren has shown a willingness to reach across the aisle, to open lines of communication when others have refused, often angering his team in the process. Obama has seized this opening despite their differences. In so doing, he may help moderate evangelical attitudes toward him. By co-opting one of their generals with a gracious gesture of inclusion that goes beyond the usual tokenism, he has quite possibly made it easier to move forward on several fronts. And progress on those fronts matters much more than the opportunity to pack the inaugural moment with partisan purity.

So before we declare ourselves utterly betrayed, let’s at least consider the possibility that the us-vs.-them politics we’re angrily demanding is less helpful in the long run than Obama’s longsighted approach. If the operative root of progressive is progress, I think Obama just may be more progressive than those of us who elected him.

More on Obama’s tenure as president of the Harvard Law Review
An outstanding column by E.J. Dionne on the Warren choice

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.