Dan Gilgoff, who runs the God & Country blog over at U.S. News & World Report, picked up on a little noticed but terribly interesting development in civil religion. Apparently President Obama’s public events are now being launched with prayers from local leaders.
Gilgoff introduces us to Ryan Culp of Elkhart, Ind. He’s a high school teacher and conservative Republican who attends the same evangelical church in which he grew up. He delivered an invocation before a nationally televised town hall meeting to sell President Obama’s $800 billion spending bill. He wrote the prayer and called an aide from the White House Office of Public Liaison for vetting. It passed:
The White House had no revisions for the prayer, which opened with the line: “Dear Heavenly Father, we come to you this day thanking you for who you are–a God that cares about each of our needs, our desires, and our fears.” Culp delivered it the following day at Obama’s town hall meeting, landing a handshake from the president and mentions in several local papers.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience for Culp has become routine for President Obama: In a departure from previous presidents, his public rallies are opening with invocations that have been commissioned and vetted by the White House.
What a great idea for a story. We’re then introduced to someone else who gave a prayer recently:
During Obama’s recent visit to Fort Myers, Fla., to promote his economic stimulus plan, a black Baptist preacher delivered a prayer that carefully avoided mentioning Jesus, lest he offend anyone in the audience. And at Obama’s appearance last week near Phoenix to unveil his mortgage bailout plan, an administrator for the Tohono O’odham Nation delivered the prayer, taking the unusual step of writing it down so he could E-mail it to the White House for vetting. American Indian prayers are typically improvised.
I wonder why we learn the race of this pastor, James Bing. We didn’t learn the race of Culp, for instance. Still, the inclusion of the angle about the offense caused by proper nouns is such an important thing to mention. (Of course, I wish those of us who are offended by the avoidance of proper nouns got a hearing, too!) There’s a fascinating quote later in the story from Bing, by the way.
The story does a good job of showing how these invocations and the vetting process compare to past presidential practice. Basically, it’s unprecedented, according to various folks interviewed for the story.
“If a similar thing had been done by President Bush’s White House, I guarantee you there would have been a lot of people crying foul,” says Bill Wichterman, deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison under President George W. Bush. “Democrats can do this with immunity, but when Republicans do it, it becomes controversial.”
The Obama administration may have skirted controversy by scheduling the invocations to be delivered before the president arrives at the events–and before national cable network cameras start rolling. “Having prayers in places like Indiana where public prayers are commonplace would help the president,” says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. “Whereas seeing it on national TV would cause controversy because there are places where these things are less popular.”
The Obama White House declined to comment about the program, other than to say that it has “been standard since the campaign,” according to spokeswoman Jen Psaki. So far, the names of those delivering invocations have appeared on the official presidential schedules that the White House distributes to the press. Culp is described in a press schedule as “a well-respected faith leader in the community.”
But many church/state experts are unfamiliar with the program. “The only thing worse than having these prayers in the first place is to have them vetted, because it entangles the White House in core theological matters,” Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said upon learning of the Obama invocations.
Gilgoff notes that no one has been asked to change their prayers. Lynn is quoted saying that the existence of the vetting process is problematic for other reasons.