Wasn’t that a remarkably Protestant festival of civil religion today at the U.S. Capitol?
As expected, President Barack Obama delivered a speech — text here — soaked in religious and moral imagery, one that civil-religion scholars will be parsing for days to come. At the heart of this was the completely understandable and, frankly, appropriate linking of this political ritual with the history of the civil rights movement and all of the language and imagery that goes with that.
Did you notice, for example, that Aretha Franklin’s improvisation at the end of “My Country ’Tis of Thee” formed a perfect bridge to the event from the final improvised lines of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s great “I Have A Dream” speech?
While setting aside the final words of the song, she added — among other improvised riffs — these words:
Our fathers’ God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing; long may our land be bright with freedom’s holy light; protect us by thy might … let freedom ring … from the red clay of Georgia, all the way to the Allegheny mountains … Let it ring.
King, of course, flowed from the same patriotic hymn into these lines:
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. …
Franklin changed the Georgia reference from Stone Mountain to “red clay,” but the link is still there.
There was much to think about during and after the ceremonies and that sound you hear is reporters working on it — including me, for Scripps Howard — right now.
Much of the attention will, of course, be focused on that radical man of evangelical America, the Rev. Rick Warren. His enthusiastic invocation included many lines to discuss and, sure enough, reporters are jumping on them.
ABC News quickly filed a report under the headline: “Embattled Pastor Warren Sets Inclusive Tone at Inaugural — Under Fire for Anti-Gay Views, Pastor Warren Mentions ‘Jesus’ in Obama’s Inaugural Invocation But Avoids Controversy.” Wow. Once again, to what degree is Warren controversial across the nation? That report by Susan Donaldson James begins:
Rick Warren, the evangelical pastor who faced criticism for his anti-gay views in the weeks leading up to the inauguration, today delivered an inclusive but deeply religious invocation that celebrated the first African-American president.
“Today we celebrate the hinge point of history in the inauguration of the first African-American president of the United States, a land of unequal possibility where the son of an African immigrant can rise to highest leadership,” he said.
“Dr. King and his witnesses are shouting in heaven,” said Warren, the Christian pastor who leads the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in California.
Speaking to a nation whose religious face increasingly reflects the map of the world, Warren invoked God to “forgive us if we fight amongst ourselves and when we fail to treat our fellow human beings with the respect they deserve.”
Actually, that part of the story includes a major misquote — if you care about Christian tradition and doctrine. Click here to read the actual Warren prayer.
ABC quotes Warren as saying, “Dr. King and his witnesses are shouting in heaven.”
The civil rights leader is, in heaven, surrounded by people who witnesses HIS deeds? I think not. Here is what Warren actually said, in context:
We are so grateful to live in this land, a land of unequaled possibility, where the son of an African immigrant can rise to the highest level of our leadership. And we know today that Dr. King and a great cloud of witnesses are shouting in heaven.
Clearly, Warren is alluding to a much greater assembly in glory, with reference to Hebrews 12:1:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
ABC News needs to run a correction — quickly.