This week's riddle asks: What do Jeremiah Wright and the California Supreme Court have in common?
The answer is that both of them, just when the Barack Obama campaign seems to be picking up steam-and just when he's persuading the electorate that he really might be the reconciler and uniter and healer who could conceivably pull a fragmented and disjointed America together-both Wright and the California court jump in with awkward reminders that maybe this middle-of-the-roadism isn't quite as soft and moderate as we've been led to think.
The unsettling reminders and questions aren't coming, mind you, from Rush Limbaugh or Phyllis Schlafly. They haven't been manufactured by some mass mailer from the religious right. Nobody had to make up the 20 years of actual quotes from Jeremiah Wright's pulpit in Chicago; nobody had to take them out of context. And nobody had to pretend that the mid-May California court decision ratifying homosexual marriage was more radical than it appeared.
No, the disquieting reminders have come from within the camp itself.
A whole lot of Americans, I suggest, would love to see some genuine healing take place in this terribly splintered society. So it's natural for Barack Obama and John McCain, instead of boasting about how distinctive their message is, instead to head for the middle and go after the millions of independent centrists in the electorate. Both of them claim that "I can stake out some common ground for Americans to stand on," and that "I know how to work across the aisle"-and a big bunch of people seem to want to listen.
I hear this tune, sung with this tone, very often these days from many of my evangelical friends. "I'm tired," some of them tell me (and especially many in their teens and 20s), "of being identified only by my opposition to abortion and homosexual behavior. Isn't this maybe a time when we have to branch out and demonstrate that we are also serious about the legitimate concerns that liberals have traditionally focused on-issues like health care and racism and poverty and the environment?"
All that has apparently begun to sound compelling. And especially when conservatives are as "divided, drifting, and demoralized" (that's columnist Robert Novak's description) as most of them are these days. Explore various venues of American evangelicalism, and you'll find remarkable numbers of former Republican stalwarts exploring other options.
Then comes another Wright bombshell, or another arrogant bit of judicial activism specifically designed to eclipse the voice of voters. Never mind that just eight years ago, Californians approved by a 61 percent majority a proposition declaring that the state was permitted to recognize "marriage" only between a man and a woman. The California Supreme Court, by telling the voters to buzz off because they can't possibly understand how terribly sophisticated these matters really are, just may have resurrected an issue Barack Obama would rather have waited until after November to bring up again.
It's altogether possible, of course, that such dramatic changes have occurred since the year 2000 that a majority of Californians no longer object to homosexual marriage. If that's the case (and no one should dismiss it out of hand), we Christians will need some radical readjustments to living as a shrinking minority in so secular a society. In fact, even if we aren't there quite yet, it's where we're likely to be a generation from now.
But it's also possible that the California court decision will grab people's attention in a manner inclined to prompt them to say: "Now wait a minute! If that's what you mean when you're talking about moderation, forget it. We don't need to go down that road quite so fast." And that's just one more surprise diversion that Barack Obama, with everything he's had going for him, probably can't afford.
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