I 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.
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.
Here 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.