The Archbishop and the President's Common Problem

By LaVonne Neff 12-09-2009

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
--William Butler Yeats, from "The Second Coming"

Two of the best people in public life today -- in my humble opinion -- are the president of the United States and the Archbishop of Canterbury. Both are intelligent, thoughtful, well-read men who care deeply about justice, not only for themselves and their immediate constituents, but for the whole world. Both are complex thinkers who understand that every issue has many aspects. Both practice empathy: they see value in their opponents as well as in their adherents, and they dream of finding common ground, reconciling adversaries, and creating peace on earth.

By no means do Barack Obama and Rowan Williams lack all conviction. But -- dogged on all sides by passionately intense extremists -- both men seem unable to say, loud and clear, "Here I stand." Obama, still hoping to come up with a viable health plan, dreams of bipartisanship; while Williams, navigating among bishops from Africa and North America, appeals to the via media.

The results?

In Congress, a formerly fairly good health bill has been rewritten to the point that it soon may do just what Republicans warned it would do, back when it didn't do it: that is, cost too much. So of course Republicans don't like it, even though they're the ones who are making the changes -- but Democrats don't much like it either, since it may no longer do what needs doing.

In Lambeth, a decades-long series of non-decisions and non-comments regarding gay clergy has driven conservative Anglicans to Africa or Rome while leaving liberal Anglicans feeling betrayed, wondering why their former champion has not even spoken up about the proposed death penalty for gays in Uganda.

I really like President Obama and Archbishop Williams. I like them because they are thoughtful reconcilers, and I think both of them have really good ideas. I would love to have a beer with either one, any time. The question is, can they do their jobs if they continue to be simultaneously irenic and visionary? Or does a public figure eventually need to draw a line in the sand, even though a lot of people will end up on the other side of the line?

portrait-lavonne-neffLaVonne Neff is an amateur theologian and cook; lover of language and travel; wife, mother, grandmother, godmother, dogmother; perpetual student, constant reader, and Christian contrarian. She blogs at Lively Dust.

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