Unlike all other Americans (give or take a few) I’m not a big fan of civil religion. I dislike the way it forces a syncretism and watering down of sacred beliefs in service to political goals. But there is a long-standing tradition of civil religion in America — invocations at political events, mentions of religious texts in inaugural speeches, veneration of Lincoln and other great politicians, interfaith events for political causes, etc. And so we will be witnessing a tremendous amount of civil religion in a few weeks when President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office to lead our country.
Obama has already been criticized for selecting Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. Warren, like the majority of Americans, does not favor same-sex marriage. Even though Obama also publicly opposes same-sex marriage, many of Obama’s gay and lesbian supporters — and other gay rights activists — feel that this selection was a betrayal of their support. Anyway, other prayers will be offered and interfaith services will be held. It will be interesting to see how, or whether, Obama incorporates religion into his inaugural speech.
But Associated Press religion reporter Rachel Zoll had a great piece of advance reporting looking at additional trouble Warren could find himself in if he invokes the name of Jesus Christ. Warren wouldn’t give details on whether he’ll pray in the name of Jesus but said he will pray as a Christian:
“Prayers are not to be sermons, speeches, position statements nor political posturing. They are humble, personal appeals to God,” Warren wrote. His spokesman would not elaborate.
Evangelicals generally expect their clergymen to use Jesus’ name whenever and wherever they lead prayer. Many conservative Christians say cultural sensitivity goes way too far if it requires religious leaders to hide their beliefs.
“If Rick Warren does not pray in Jesus’ name, some folks are going to be very disappointed,” [Rev. Kirbyjon] Caldwell said in a recent phone interview. “Since he’s evangelical, his own tribe, if you will, will have some angst if he does not do that.”
Zoll came up with an awesome idea for a story. Already we’re seeing lawsuits attempting to halt any prayers at the inauguration. Previous lawsuits haven’t gotten terribly far. She gives the historical perspective, looking at the trouble Caldwell, a spiritual adviser to President Bush and President-elect Obama, got into when he quoted from Philippians and delivered a prayer at Bush’s first inauguration “in the name that’s above all other names, Jesus the Christ.” She also quotes civil rights leader Rev. Joseph Lowery and Rev. Franklin Graham supporting the prerogative of any religious person to pray in a manner true to their religion.
I thought this set-up to Billy Graham’s 1969 prayer to be funny in its understatement:
Billy Graham, now 90, didn’t say Jesus’ name during presidential inaugurations, but made obvious references to Christ.
At Richard Nixon’s 1969 swearing-in, Graham prayed “in the Name of the Prince of Peace who shed His blood on the Cross that men might have eternal life.” In 1997, for Bill Clinton’s inaugural, Graham prayed “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Yes, that first mention in particular would be a pretty obvious “reference” to Christ. Can you imagine if anyone prayed such a specific prayer next month? For the article, Zoll also gets perspective from adherents to other religions who pray regularly in interfaith settings. They say that they try to tone down any specificity. It’s something I’ve noticed in my many visits to interfaith services: no one minds if anyone gets very specific about their particular religious beliefs but most people don’t. This last quote was a nice way to end the piece in that it matched the overall tone of the reportage:
Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, said he invokes “God” for interfaith prayer.
“I know that for Christians, Jesus is part of their Trinity,” said Visotzky, who has taught at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and at Protestant seminaries in the U.S. “For me as a Jew, hearing the name of a first-century rabbi isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it’s not my God.”
Kudos to the AP for jumping on this story early and doing it in such a calm and even-handed manner. The drama of the topic alone manages to make this story compelling and fascinating for general interest readers.