In Jesus’ name

jesus_bible_namesUnlike 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.

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  • Sarah

    Actually, David Waters at the Washington Post jumped on it first. He doesn’t have the same kind of reporting Rachel Zoll provides, but he gave the historical comparisons:

    As a follow-up

  • Jerry

    One of the things I enjoy about this blog is that it inspires me to question assumptions that I hold about the meaning of words and phrases. Mollie’s mild jeremiad about civil religion inspired me to review what others have said about that phrase such as which has echoes of Mollie’s dislike and which specifically discusses civil religion in America.

    As other have no doubt noticed, I have on-the-whole a positive view of syncretism. In a sense, any inter-faith dialog whether between Christians and Muslims or between various groups of Christians (ecumenism) is a syncretic attempt. To me, it’s a positive step to look for areas of common ground as long as one’s core beliefs are not compromised. The proper analogy to me is a stew where the individual components retain their identity while at the same time blending into a harmonious unity.

    The culture and media reporting currently eschews tolerance and approves of promoting sharp conflict, so nitpicking about what Pastor Warren will say is met with approval by many. I hope he finds a way to speak from the heart and in a way that promotes the American stew while affirming his own beliefs. That’s no easy task, of course, but I hope he succeeds and that the media gives a voice to those who see and approve of it along with those who disapprove.

  • Dan

    In deciding whether to “dare” to invoke Jesus’s name, I hope Pastor Warren keeps in mind Mark 8:38 and Luke 9:26.

    If the media want sharp conflict, they presumably are hoping that Pastor Warren will say something along the lines of Romans 18-32 (which describes a situation that has a very contemporary ring). He of course wouldn’t dare. But if he did the fireworks that would ensure would be quite a sight.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jerry– I like your image of friendly relations between religions as a stew. My family–who all had and still have love and respect for each other- is a stew. On my mother’s side were Christian Scientists, Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, Universalists. On my father’s side Catholics and Jews. It was even fun having mini-debates at 4th of July cook-outs, etc. over some issues (because it was always with respect and no nasty potshots taken). Half the family funerals I have been involved in or presided at have been for my Protestant relatives.(And I wore my Catholic deacon’s vestments and used prayers from the Catholic funeral liturgy.)
    But I would not consider this –or any meetings between believers– to bring about civic peace and pray or do projects together– as “a syncretic attempt.” For virtually all such meetings (or family gatherings) and projects do not get into doctrinal-theological issues.
    I hope Rev. Warren gives a prayer that is at least identifiable as uniquely Evangelical, just as I would hope a Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, or Moslem imam would be free to be themselves in prayer or vesture when offering a prayer before a public gathering. To demand or enforce some sort of watering down is where the danger of syncretism lies, it seems to me. And, yes, I think there is a danger developing in our country as our culture seems determined to turn our delicious religious “stew” into insipid watery gruel. (How we eventually resolve many civic issues regarding the Amish will go a long way in determining whether we will be a “syncretic” or “stew” nation.)

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  • Julia

    Seems to me what words and references Rick Warren or any other person should use in a non-sectarian public setting depends on how you see his function.

    If he is symbolically leading the assembled in prayer to (a) God on our behalf, he shouldn’t dress it with his own particular Jesus language.

    If praying and speaking only on his own behalf for the country and the president with us only watching – maybe specific language would be more acceptable.

    I wouldn’t want a Hindu to indicate that he is leading me in prayers to Ganesh, would you? But if I’m only observing the Hindu pray to Ganesh, that’s different.

    If Warren doesn’t assume he is praying on our behalf, he won’t ask us to bow our heads, will he? Is that how we can tell?

    There’s a difference between words indicating that others are also silently participating in prayer and words that assume no such thing. Maybe that should be made clear.

  • Julia

    If praying and speaking only on his own behalf for the country and the president with us only watching – maybe specific language would be more acceptable.

    Change that to:

    If praying for the country and the president snd speaking only on his own behalf, with the assembled only watching – maybe specific language would be more acceptable.

  • danr

    “I wouldn’t want a Hindu to indicate that he is leading me in prayers to Ganesh, would you?”

    Fair question, but I think I’d much rather he pray to Ganesh than bow to pressure to make it more generic/universalist by excluding specific language that’s otherwise always included in their own prayers.

    As athiests are happy point out (and the media is happy to report), any prayer at all – to any god, by any name – in a public/governmental context is offending their (non) beliefs. You simply can’t please everyone.

  • Stephen A.

    re: Julia’s point, I think it’s fair at this point to mention that when an actual Hindu made a prayer in the House of Representatives a few months back, Right-wing Christians went berserk, both in the actual gallery of the House and throughout the nation.

    So yes, a bit of sensitivity is definitely required when practicing what I’d prefer to call “Civic Religion” – since CIVIL religion (and being civil to each other about it) is what we should all be practicing, but always fail to live up to.

    To the point of the blog post, reporters should not blow this into a huge deal, since as noted, every other pastor in recent memory giving an inaugural has used a Christian prayer.

  • biodun

    I know this inability to be really free is underminning the source of the freedom of the ‘greatest’ country on earth. I wish Rick Warren will just be himself.- Let Rick ask himself questions like- Who is Pastor Rick Warren? Why was he invited? What qualified him for such an invitation? Who does he intend to please with his life, prayers etc while bearing in mind 2 Cor 5:15? Will rather please man/men at the expense of his fundamental beliefs? Sure this is a real test for Rick – Whatever he had all his life truely stood for will be revealed that very day.