Christopher Hitchens is taking an eager part in the campaign to shame the President-elect into disinviting Rick Warren from participating in the inauguration ceremonies. Hitchens, of course, is one the nation's most popular atheists, so he probably dislikes the idea of prayer at the event automatically. He seems to have taken a special dislike for Warren, while realizing that labelling him a homophobe won't be enough to purge him from the program. So for the past two weeks Hitchens has gone on the attack from his perch on Slate. Last week he effectively called Warren an anti-semite because he takes the conventional Christian position that Jews won't make it into Heaven without accepting Jesus.This week he takes a new approach. Warren, he says, pals around with terrorists.
The specific terrorist is Bashar al-Asad, the ruler of Syria. Warren visited that country recently and had generally positive things to say. In this he echoes some dissident conservatives who see Syria as a likely ally for the U.S. in the Middle East. Warren wouldn't be the first to notice that Arab Christians seem to get a better deal under secular dictatorships like Syria (which is ruled by a branch of the Baath party, like Iraq used to be) than under purportedly more democratic regimes with Islamist tendencies. But dictators are abhorrent to Christopher Hitchens, who is in turn unlikely to be moved by the perils of religious minorities.
So Warren isn't exactly a neocon, though I can understand why even more moderate people might find the Syrian leader's company odious. Hitchens, meanwhile, is playing his typical game. He helped popularize the "islamofascist" tag for radical Muslims in a clear effort to recruit liberals for his secularist irregulars in the neocon crusade. Here he's apparently trying to recruit the neocons in his war against Warren. Some might even bite on the bait if they think that stirring up controversy will embarrass Obama. But I doubt whether Obama could care less about it all. If his goal is to make conservative Christians feel more friendly toward him, he could hardly do better than make Christopher Hitchens mad at him.
I tend to agree with Hitchens that Obama has been opportunistic if not cynical in his relations with organized religion. In fact, the more cynical I can imagine Obama being on this front, the better I like him. I suppose I'm cynical, too, if one reason why I don't want Obama to back down is my hope that spreading anger over his stubbornness will generate a popular and powerful anti-religious movement in this country. If some people will overlook their wounded feelings, they might understand that, while this is a battle they can't win, the mere fight puts them in better shape for the culture war that they, not Obama, must fight.