Parsing Warren’s “inclusive” prayer

72817539AW014_Meet_The_PresI had the privilege of attending the inauguration yesterday and sitting in some ridiculously good seats. As in, eighth row. As in, Beyonce was many rows behind me. I have to say, if you’re going to see an inauguration, you can’t get closer than the press area. Or at least the press area I was in.

For the inauguration itself, I was most interested in the civil religion angle, an area I’ve written about a great deal. There will be plenty of parsing of the prayers and President Obama’s speech in the days to come. Let’s look at early analysis of the Rev. Rick Warren’s prayer.

Reader Jerry wondered if people would catch not just the Jewish reference but the Muslim reference as well.

Cathy Lynn Grossman, one of many on the Godbeat who has been doing a great job covering the week, wrote that Warren’s invocation used a Jewish, Christian and Muslim mix:

Controversial evangelical pastor Rick Warren opened Barack Obama’s inaugural ceremony Tuesday by touching on the two greatest prayers in Judaism and Christianity and asking God to grace the nation with clarity, responsibility and civility, “even when we differ.” . . .

Warren’s invocation began with a fundamental Jewish prayer that declares the “Lord is one.” He also alluded to a description of God as the “compassionate and merciful” one that opens almost every chapter of the Quran, said historian R.B. Bernstein, who teaches at New York Law School. Warren concluded with the Lord’s Prayer.

The story doesn’t really explain the Christian component. It quotes someone saying that the call to seek forgiveness was Christian — although others might see a similar theme in their own religion.

Steven Waldman at Beliefnet, who has been all over Warren like white on rice, took readers through each section of the prayer and brought out the significance of each part. He, like Grossman, refers to Warren as controversial. What does that mean? Yes, I know, a very vocal minority that gets an amazing amount of press coverage doesn’t like him. But his views that have caused so much consternation are the views shared by a majority of his fellow voting citizens in California. Is it controversial to be aligned with the majority? Or what, exactly, is our definition for that term?

I am no Warren defender. I find his Christian theology vis-a-vis Purpose Driven Life to be weak and his apparent plan on become “America’s pastor” a confusion of his real vocation. Not that we’re getting much coverage of these angles, of course. But let’s not confuse a man holding the views of a majority of his countrymen with being controversial.

Anyway, Waldman says the prayer was “broadly inclusive yet true to his faith.” He says the prayer reiterated the central themes of Purpose Driven Life, welcomed Jews, included a phrase highly evocative of Muslim prayers, etc. Here’s one interesting parsing of the mention of the “great cloud of witnesses”:

I happened to be standing on the mall in a group of mostly African Americans, who were responding to Warren throughout with yells of “tell it” “that’s right”. They erupted at the cloud of witnesses line. This is a reference to a passage in Hebrews about those who had hope in the years before Jesus and finally saw that hope finally fulfilled through Christ. The idea of hope deferred, of course, could not be more resonant than at this inauguration, and in a passage about the first African American president. For those who assumed Warren was a right winger, this passage may have surprised and reassured.

I can’t say I understand why this would be understood in terms of being a right winger or not.

Waldman notes Warren’s statement that religion is not what defines us as Americans and also his plea to seek forgiveness:

In the era of the Founding Fathers, leaders routinely called on Americans to confess their sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. In recent years, prayers at public events have had more of a “God bless America” feel, simply assuming that we’re worthy of God’s favor. Warren’s prayer was more confessional than most recent ones.

Waldman wonders whether Warren’s request for corporate forgiveness for failing to treat fellow human beings with respect was an olive branch to gay Americans. One could certainly find a multitude of actions by Americans that would fit under that request, including the threats and violence supporters of traditional marriage have been subject to in the wake of their civic votes.

drucker_bwcoverHere was some helpful perspective:

Warren prayed in Jesus’s name (or names), which should please his evangelical flock. (Four Jesus names!) But he did it in a non-exclusionary way. He talked about how Jesus changed HIS life, not how he must change the lives of other Americans. This stands in stark contrast to the 2001 prayer by Franklin Graham, who called on Americans to acknowledge Christ alone as savior and God.

He also said that the use of the Lord’s Prayer was particularly deft as it doesn’t mention Jesus (since He was praying it, of course) and therefore seems more universal.

I don’t agree with all of the analysis but I have to say that many of the thoughts that went through my head during the prayer were said by Waldman.

I could not say the same for Sally Quinn’s analysis at the Washington Post, a piece that was roundly criticized by many of our readers, judging from my e-mail. You should read for yourself but it is written as if she really doesn’t understand anything about the evangelical opposition to same-sex marriage. It ends, in fact, with this kicker:

Perhaps in a few years, Pastor Rick Warren will have another epiphany . . . and may eventually be officiating at same-sex wedding ceremonies.

It’s not that Warren doesn’t shift his views, he does and has said as much. But while he has said one of his greatest mentors was management guru Peter Drucker, his other greatest mentor is Billy Graham. He may be one of the savviest marketers in evangelical Christianity but he’s still within evangelical Christianity. And if you don’t know what theology and doctrine evangelicals are rooted in, you’re not going to do a very good job analyzing them. That’s why Quinn’s analysis suffers and Waldman’s and others do so well.

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  • str1977

    “The story doesn’t really explain the Christian component. It quotes someone saying that the call to seek forgiveness was Christian — although others might see a similar theme in their own religion.”

    Yes, but let’s not forget that that fundamental Jewish prayer is fundamentally Christian as well.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    And on that note, the Muslim “shout-out” is well within Christianity as well.

  • John K.

    First, just because someone holds a majority position doesn’t mean it’s not controversial. A majority favors Roe v. Wade, yet no one would say abortion isn’t controversial. The Prop. 8 vote was 52% to 48%. The closeness of the divide seems to be more indicative of how controversial something is than which side of the sharp divide someone falls on.

    Second, Christian theology used to be that slavery was endorsed by the Bible and interracial marriage was prohibited. Theology has been “tweaked” many times before, and it can be tweaked again (in fact, it must if it is to survive).

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    John K.,

    Unless you are suggesting that everyone who supports Roe V. Wade be given the descriptor “controversial,” my point stands.

    And yes, people have used all sorts of justifications for all sorts of things — from pedophilia to beastiality to anti-miscegenation laws, etc. None of that relates to the purpose of this blog or my post, however.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Calling any piece by Quinn on religion an “analysis” is a bit of a stretch.

  • Brian L

    I hate that we are spending so much time analyzing and rating prayers – but viewed from a cultural and political angle, Warren had the best of the day (though the chaplain who opened the lunch did very well).

    Warren was under the most scrutiny, with the most people ready and willing to jump on any and all potential “controversial” phrases. The pressure to serve the country (and his president) without implicitly denying his God – and to do both with integrity – must have been immense.

    Warren was poised, gracious, spiritual, civil, and contemporary. It seems like exactly what he wanted to portray and likely what Obama wanted him to do. Folks should give the well-known Rev. Dr. Rick Warren his props and move on.

  • Dale

    Chris Bollinger wrote:

    Calling any piece by Quinn on religion an “analysis” is a bit of a stretch.

    I’m with Chris. Quinn’s essay presupposed that her view of the world, and in particular same-sex marriage, was the correct one. Obama could permit Warren a place in the public forum because one day Warren just might conform to Quinn’s values. There was no attempt to analyze Warren’s worldview, its weaknesses and strengths, how his convictions about sexual morality arise from the same place as his other, Quinn-sanctioned beliefs. It was all about Quinn’s values, and how Warren measured up.

    That’s not analysis, it’s self-righteous presumption. Should we permit Gene Robinson a place in the public forum, not because he’s a citizen like the rest of us and represents a community, but because one day he might realize the error of his ways and go straight? Ugh.

  • John K.

    Mollie:

    Barack Obama is controversial to people who do not support Roe v. Wade. I don’t think it is inaccurate to say that. Sure, people who support Roe v. Wade are not controversial among themselves, but support of the decision is certainly controversial to people who don’t support it. The perceived importance of the stakes also contribute to the controversy. I would, however, say that Roe v. Wade is LESS controversial than Rick Warren right now. Again, Prop. 8 was so closely decided that it simply cannot be characterized as anything BUT controversial, and I would say everyone who holds a position one way or the other is “controversial” (at least someone who holds a strong public opinion about it). I’m not being one-sided here; Eugene Robinson is equally controversial, and he would be so even if Prop. 8 had failed. Rick Warren was in the news for at least several days because of the controversy stirred up by his selection to give the inaugural prayer. The very fact that people are still talking about it proves my point.

    My point in bringing up the past theological stances of the church was in response to your assertion that Sally Quinn misunderstood the theology of Evangelical Christianity, and therefore, was unable to effectively analyze them. My point was that to say that Rick Warren should have an epiphany and realize that his theology is wrong, just like people have done in the past with slavery and racism, is not “misunderstanding” the theology. Perhaps it is being facetiously optimistic, but it is, in fact, the long-term goal of gay rights supporters to do just that, change the way Christianity and religion in general views gay people.

  • Dale

    My point in bringing up the past theological stances of the church was in response to your assertion that Sally Quinn misunderstood the theology of Evangelical Christianity, and therefore, was unable to effectively analyze them.

    Mollie’s point holds. Evangelical Christians don’t just have “epiphanies” that turn doctrine on its head. If Quinn knew anything about Warren’s theology, she would understand that his “epiphany” wasn’t a change in his theology, but a realization that he wasn’t living what his theology required. There is an abundance of scriptural authority for acts of charity toward the poor and sick, something that evangelicals and all other Christian traditions have known since the beginning of the church, and, despite Quinn’s apparent ignorance of the fact, evangelical Christians have a long history of works of charity. Ever hear of the Salvation Army? Warren isn’t striking out in a new direction–he’s getting back on track

    Warren would be the first one to justify his actions, whether charity or his attitude toward the gay community, through scripture. Despite the hermeneutical gymnastics of liberal theologians over the last 40 years, the vast majority of Christians, throughout the various traditions, see in scripture a clear prohibition of homosexual sex acts. In Warren’s worldview, an epiphany that contradicts scripture is false.

    Quinn fails to take that worldview seriously. She apparently regards the evangelical attitude to scriptural authority as little more than personal whim, that can be changed based on feeling, that the scripture can be made to say anything. That’s a massive case of not getting religion.

  • danr

    “Rick Warren was in the news for at least several days because of the controversy stirred up by his selection to give the inaugural prayer. The very fact that people are still talking about it proves my point.”

    Rather, the media’s insistence on headlining Warren and his views as “controversial” in the face of predominant public acceptance (if not approval) of the choice of Warren, based on polls, says far more about the media’s bias than any inherent controversy.

    Controversy chicken or egg – is it in the news because we’re talking about it, or are we talking about it because it’s in the news?

  • Dave

    Mollie, I’m with John K. on both points. Marriage equity is controversial as a topic (like abortion) and taking a stand on either side makes one controversial.

    I’m amused by the fervor with which “fundamental” doctrine against marriage equity is declared. Slavery and anti-miscegenation laws were defended with equal fervor, yet here we are today. This, in my humble opinion, is not a matter of theology but of sociology, and the sociological observation is that theology evolves with the times — perhaps, more precisely, is always behind the times but keeps trying to catch up.

    However narrow the worldview of the MSM is on a theological spectrum, it understands that last point.

  • John K.

    Dale:

    As I said, perhaps her statement was facetiously optimistic, but my point holds. Whether you characterize it as a change in theology or a realization that one has been interpreting the theology wrong (I agree that the latter would be a more accurate description), Quinn’s hope is that Warren and those like him will eventually come to view homosexuality as NOT inconsistent with scripture. Call that hermeutical gymnastics if you want, it’s happened before.

  • John K.

    danr: Fair enough. However, there was enough opposition that he was protested at his church on Sunday and at the Martin Luther King speech in Atlanta on Monday. I don’t know to what extent, if any, he was protested at the actual inauguration. I think I will agree with you that the media made it a BIGGER controversy than maybe it is, but it is a controversy nonetheless.

  • Jaroslaw

    JohnK – Not to be unkind or uncharitable – I wouldn’t say “fair enough” to DanR. News is just that NEWS. The fact is the public accepted many things that we do not accept today. Predominant acceptance means exactly what Danr? While it is true the media can be “biased” the fact remains in this situation at least, that our country at long last is becoming more pluralistic in actual deed and not just the principle. The media reporting it is hardly proof of bias.

  • Dale

    Quinn’s hope is that Warren and those like him will eventually come to view homosexuality as NOT inconsistent with scripture.

    Right, and she’s only willing to tolerate his participation in public life as long as she thinks that’s possible. She’s not willing to address the theology, because she doesn’t know it, and to her it’s a mere formality. The only thing that matters is that he conform his values to her correct ones. There’s no question of her changing her perspective, or giving any validity to his convictions about same-sex marriage.

    How “open-minded”. She presumes that he’s the one that should evolve. Why not her?

  • danr

    “Predominant acceptance means exactly what Danr?”

    Jaroslaw, my reference to “predominant acceptance” was not regarding the issue of SSM in general, as it appears you misinterpreted. Rather it had to do with public response to Obama’s choice of Warren – regardless of Warren’s stance on this (admittedly controversial) issue. According to a recent WP-ABC News poll, 61% polled (including 60% of Republicans and, notably, 66% of Democrats) expressed support for the choice of Warren. Another 16% were neutral/no opinion. This was even after a relative media onslaught of negativity regarding the “controversy”. I think in our polarized culture, most reasonable people would characterize percentages like those as “predominant”, though I respect your right to disagree.

  • John K.

    Dale: There is no validity to a theology that is against same-sex marriage. I’m a person who generally balks at making blanket statements of what are usually considered “opinion,” but the fact is that Rick Warren and those who hold his views are simply wrong on this issue, and there’s nothing wrong with an otherwise open-minded person not being open-minded when it comes to this nonsense. There is nothing hypocritical about a tolerant person refusing to tolerate intolerance.

  • John K.

    danr: Yes, the polls show that many more people approved of Rick Warren’s inclusion in the inauguration than disapproved. However, to be fair, that poll also showed that a large percentage of the people polled just hadn’t even hear about what the controversy was about in the first place.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    John K.,

    Your comment in 17 is probably beyond what is appropriate discussion for this blog (media coverage of religious issues) but it’s definitely beyond silly. Viewed throughout history, in terms of global religious population, or just across the main religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc., there’s actually very little theological disagreement about same-sex marriage and it’s not in favor of it.

    You may wish that all theological arguments were in your favor, but that’s just not the case. Far from it.

    As for the polls, Gallup found 9 percent of Americans against Rick Warren’s inclusion in the festivities.

  • Dale

    There is no validity to a theology that is against same-sex marriage. . . . there’s nothing wrong with an otherwise open-minded person not being open-minded when it comes to this nonsense

    By what authority do you claim that? How is it that you get to decide which theology is valid and which isn’t? I don’t accept a bald assertion as a valid argument, and it’s not a valid argument when Sally Quinn does it, either. Warren has taken his position on same-sex marriage based on a coherent moral system. When Quinn takes it upon herself to judge his position, she has an obligation to at least explore his moral thinking, rather than presumptuously stating that he must change it. Otherwise, she’s just exercising her power in the media to force conformity, rather than carrying on civil dialogue.

  • John K.

    What, did you delete my responses so you can have the last word? Nice.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    John K.,

    I deleted two of your responses for being off-topic to the purposes of this blog. You’re welcome to contribute to the discussion of media coverage of religion news.

    This isn’t, as I wrote before, a blog to discuss your personal religious views or slam others’ religious views. We discuss media coverage of religion news.

    Feel free to join in — but stay on topic.

    Thanks!