Who should pray at the inauguration? How about nobody?

Louie Giglio’s withdrawal from the invitation to pray a benediction at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration has sparked a fun game of nominate the prayer pray-er.

This game can be entertaining, but it also illustrates the larger underlying problem.

The basic parameters of the game are pretty simple: Giglio, Obama’s first choice, backed out over controversy arising from sermons he gave urging LGBT people to repent from, um, from being LGBT people, apparently. So it seems we just need to find, as Sarah Posner put it, “an LGBT-affirming clergy, or at least someone who doesn’t have an online trove of sermons denouncing sexual sin.”

This is the look Roger Williams would give you if you asked him to pray at an official government ceremony.

This is fun because we have lots of good names to choose from. GLAAD has a pretty terrific list, including the Rev. Nancy Wilson (moderator of the Metropolitan Community Church), Jay Bakker, Jacqui Lewis, Andrew Marin, Rabbi Denise Eger, Fr. Jim Martin, the Rev. Otis Moss III and Rachel Held Evans. Organize a conference with that bunch as your list of speakers and I’ll mail in my registration.

Alex Seitz-Wald has a good list too at Salon, including Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño, Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Rabbi David Saperstein, Welton Gaddy, Tony Jones, Imam Mohamed Magid, Sister Simone Campbell, James Forbes of Riverside Church, and Luis Leon, who preaches at St. John’s Church in D.C., where the Obamas often attend worship. Looks like another great conference.

Of the names I recognize there, I like all of those choices.

But that’s the problem. President Obama isn’t looking for someone who would appeal mainly to people like me.

Obama invited Louie Giglio to pray for the same reasons he invited Rick Warren four years ago. They  both were invited in part because the president seems impressed with some of their work — Giglio’s efforts to stop human trafficking and Warren’s PEACE plan both address things Obama has worked on too. But mainly they were invited because they are respected within the white evangelical community.

Obama is about to be sworn in for the second time as the president of all Americans, but he knows that not all Americans will feel included. Many Americans feel alienated at his election and re-election, for a wide variety of reasons. White evangelicals make up one of the largest such groups — they voted overwhelmingly for Obama’s opponent in the last election. He extended an invitation to Louie Giglio for the same reason he earlier invited Warren — to reassure their community of white evangelicals that he will be their president too.

That’s a commendable sentiment — an expression of a necessary component of democratic government. But it also makes our game of pick-the-pray-er much more complicated. Now we have two variables. We need someone who will make white evangelical Americans feel included but who will not make LGBT Americans feel excluded.

These two criteria almost cancel each other out, with a zero-sum tribal response from some evangelicals insisting that they must. Many of the names in the lists above are people who would be celebrated and embraced by white evangelicals except for their “stance on homosexuality” (as the lingo goes). Jay Bakker’s pro-gay ministry is the reason that other evangelicals insist on calling him a “post- evangelical.” Brain McLaren’s is a big part of why other evangelicals insist on calling him a “post- Christian.” Tony Jones’ advocacy for same-sex marriage got him booted from the evangelical club here at Patheos. And Rachel Held Evans’ lack of condemnation for LGBT folks is a big part of the reason she’s been labeled “controversial” by people who still think that’s an effective way to silence questions or to silence women or to silence women who ask questions.

So it seems as though anyone who meets the first criteria of not being hostile to LGBT people will — by virtue of meeting that criteria — therefore fail to meet the second.

As tricky as the game now seems, I think we could still come up with a few names. Ed Dobson might work. Or — and this is a bit outside-the-box — maybe Ted Haggard. Yes, like Giglio, Haggard preached quite a few anti-gay sermons back in the day, but his circumstances have changed a bit since then. Inviting him would certainly be a challenge to Fitzgerald’s rule about second acts in American lives.

But my point here isn’t really to come up with a winning list of names. My real point is that this game shouldn’t be played at all.

So here is my recommendation for who President Obama should invite to give the benediction at his inauguration ceremony: No one.

This is not a church service. This is a state ceremony celebrating the peaceful transition of secular power in our secular democracy.

We do not need prayers at inaugurations. We need to not have prayers at inaugurations. Those sentences are true whether the “we” refers to we Americans as a nation or to “we” Christians or “we” religious people. Mingling of church and state is not good for either church or state.

(This is where all the Baptists should be saying “Amen!” Yet somehow the Southern Baptists never seem to join in.)

In the case of semi-official ceremonial prayers like an inauguration benediction, I think the danger is far greater for church than for state.

To appreciate the nature of that danger, just imagine what would happen if Obama took my advice here and dispensed with public prayers at his inauguration. Many American Christians would freak out. They would declare this to be an attack on them, an attack on Christianity itself.

For those Christians, neutrality and equality is perceived as injustice, because for those Christians, privilege is perceived as their due and their birthright.

That’s a problem. That’s a very large problem. We’re seeing hints of the scope and the depth of that problem in some of the evangelical reaction to Giglio’s withdrawal from the ceremony — self-pitying screeds, staggeringly disproportionate claims of persecution, and all the other symptoms of stage-four terminal privileged distress.

About which, much more in the next post on this topic.

As for the name the pray-er game, as much as I admire the good Christians listed above (and the excellent choice of Nadia Bolz-Weber in the previous thread), I don’t want to see a Christian invited to replace Giglio.

Such public invitations reinforce Christian privilege — and reinforce the Christian expectation of privilege. And that only makes it harder for American Christians to work through the privilege distress now hobbling the church in this country.

So let’s have a rabbi. Or perhaps one of the Sikh leaders from the Oak Creek temple. Or, better yet, Neal DeGrasse Tyson. “Benediction” means “good word,” after all, and he’s pretty terrific at offering a good word. Or how about Jessica Ahlquist? She’s been subjected to enough bad words that she deserves the chance to respond with a good one.

  • http://nwrickert.wordpress.com/ Neil Rickert

    So let’s have a rabbi. Or perhaps one of the Sikh leaders from the Oak Creek temple. Or, better yet, Neal DeGrasse Tyson. “Benediction” means “good word,” after all, and he’s pretty terrific at offering a good word. Or how about Jessica Ahlquist? She’s been subjected to enough bad words that she deserves the chance to respond with a good one.

    I like those suggestions.

    My recommendation would be one minute of silence, during which those who so wish may offer their own silent prayers.  Except, perhaps there should be soft background music for that minute, rather than complete silence.

    That would be living up to the establishment clause of the first amendment.  And it would even be consistent with the principle indicated in Matt 6:6.

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    The privileged panic response seems almost universal when a privileged group feels their hegemony eroded.

    This especially frustrating when the group ought to know better than to do to other people what’s been done to them. Witness the current furore in the UK. Yes, certain subset of feminists who indulge in horrible transphobic screeds that hurt my trans friends, I’m looking at you. http://www.pinknews.co.uk/2013/01/14/protesters-to-demonstrate-amidst-accusations-of-transphobia-at-the-observer-and-the-guardian/

    What’s fascinating is you get the same claims of persecution and being bullied from the group I just mentioned when called on their transphobia that you get from the Christianists when called on just about everything.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    I suggested Desmond Tutu on the other thread, and thought of another one: Jimmy Carter – he’s not an ordained minister, but I don’t think anyone would hold that against him. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Mmm, Brain McLaren, evangelical to the zombies.

  • Ouri Maler

    Hm. A few years too late to get Fred Rogers…

  • http://loosviews.livejournal.com BringTheNoise

    What’s fascinating is you get the same claims of persecution and being bullied from the group I just mentioned when called on their transphobia that you get from the Christianists when called on just about everything.

    Not to mention the pathetic cries of  “Censorship”. I was unaware The Observer was an arm of the UK Government…

  • Carstonio

     I don’t understand the theological basis for the joke, but I enjoyed the mental image of an entire congregation holding hymnals and singing “Brains!”

  • histrogeek

    Definitely get someone from outside the Christian tent. Nobody would be preferable, but I doubt Obama would have the nerve for that.
    For political reasons a rabbi is the best bet, evangelicals would have a rougher time attacking a Jewish leader than a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu leader. Either that or someone connected to civil rights movement.  (I know I was pushing a list of Christians earlier but that was a fantasy football thing; Spong, Harris, and Robinson are as likely to get invited for a benediction as P.Z. Myers.)

  • Launcifer

    Well, if the Minister for International Development feels able to wade in and demand that Julie Burchill, Suzanne Moore (who wrote a completely different column that started all this) and the editor of the newspaper all lose their jobs over the matter then, yeah, I’m going to start thinking that’s an attempt to censor the press.

    For the record, I hold Burchill in incredibly low esteem, but when people start calling someone like Moore a fascist then, I’m sorry, but I smell a rat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    There’s a Snickers commercial from some years back, where the coach at a football game announces, “In the interests of political correctness, we will now have a prayer from every major (and minor) faith to bless the team,” or something like that. Cut to a priest, a minister, a rabbi, an American Indian shaman, a Buddhist monk, a man in wizard’s robes, a Hindu in orange robes, and so on, in a line stretching out the door, as the players sit and groan. Personally I would that as a solution, even if it would take all afternoon, partly just because it looks so neat. Wonder what an atheist “holy man” would look like, a scientist’s white lab coat and a telescope?
    Okay, so it’s not a practical solution.

  • histrogeek

     An atheist “holy man” would be anyone who could speak with some authority for the atheist community. A scientist or writer or lecturer would seem the best choice, though really it could be anyone. (Not that I claim to know who would be acceptable; I am not a part of that community.)
     As far as ceremonial outfits, not really needed. Ministers often don’t wear anything ceremonial; I don’t think Rick Warren did. Personally I’d love it, though maybe in the interest of time they can all say some good words at the same time. Kind of a Babel/Pentecost/ E Pluribis Unum thing.

  • Cathy W

    Your example reminds me of an episode from the first season of Babylon 5, where each of the planets who sent ambassadors to the space station were putting on demonstrations of their religions. Most of the other planets had a single religion, and simply invited the public to a traditional ritual – but Earth’s demonstration was a line of people, whom Earth’s ambassador introduced. “This is Mr. Singh. He’s a Sikh. This is Ms. Ramirez. She’s a Catholic. This is Mr. Jones. He’s an atheist. This is Mr. Running Bison. He practices the religious traditions of the Lakota people.” And so forth. They didn’t run down the entire line on camera, but there were at least 50 people lined up.

    On a more practical level, the American Humanist Association certifies “celebrants” who perform non-religious weddings and funerals. Surely such a person could come up with a benediction that honors Americans of all faiths and none – except that that would probably still cause screeching about how secular humanism is a religion too, really, it is.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    You’re right, but the robes and ornamentation are what makes it look cool.

  • Termudgeon

    An inauguration should include everybody. When there is a Christian prayer, non-Christians are left out. When there is a prayer of any sort, atheists are left out. A truly inclusive ceremony would not include any position on religion whatsoever.

  • P J Evans

    True – the inauguration is and should be a secular handing-over-the-keys-to-the-country moment,but by tradition it’s a big deal with prayers. (Mostly, I think, because tradition.
    I’d really like to see an incoming President say to the planners: We’re president for everyone. No prayers, or find someone who is genuinely non-denominational.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    I think the business of prayers are partially a symbol not just that we wish our President to be enlightened, to carry out his duties faithfully and fairly, but that he have the blessing of the people he both serves and leads. Prayer, to me, is also an admittance that some things are greater than one man, or even humanity, and that Obama is willing to be open to guidance, whether that comes from Gaia, Buddha, or Common Sense.

  • Carstonio

    That’s partly how I read the poem that Maya Angelou delivered at Bill Clinton’s first inauguration. Obviously there’s room for that type of message in a civil secular setting. Prayer, on the other hand, is a sectarian endeavor.

  • Madhabmatics

    There’s this really goofy split-view on Carter here in the south. If you ask a conservative about Carter, they’ll say he’s a traitor who let the US get pushed around by the middle-east, who now works with Muslims in favor of eradicating all Jewish people, supports building homes for leeches instead of hard working families, etc. But they’ll also say “He would have been the perfect Christian president who would have implemented all the policies we wanted, but the Democrat Machine told him he couldn’t choose Christian advisors!”

    It’s very bizarre.

  • ReverendRef

    On the previous thread about this, I suggested a couple of names (both Episcopalians — imagine that …. ).  But I would be way okay with not even having a prayer at the inauguration.  I’m the guy who tries to get couples to go get married over at the courthouse before we do the church thing (I’ve struck out so far); so the whole thing of separating church and state is just fine with me.

    Of course, I’d have to spend several weeks educating some of my parishioners on why no inaugural prayer was a good thing.  But that’s okay, too, because I’d have a built-in discussion piece for between services.

  • Worthless Beast

    I was reading this and glanced over at a book I have around that I got for Christmas: 

    I think it would be enormous fun to have Stephen Colbert speak.  On one hand (if what I hear is correct) he is a bonafide Progressive Catholic – so while not Evangelical, he is in the “believer-camp” genuinely, yet, at the same time, he gives satire of the right-wing Evangelical type on his show regularly.  He could give prayer – but in an over the top, satrical way that makes fun of the whole Inaguration process and the American public in a really brilliant, silly way. 

    Of course, when he starts in with the satirical remarks about Obama, we just know some people out there who don’t watch The Colbert Report are going to take it seriously… and that would be sad.

  • Andrew K

    Amen to this. I wish that it were so, but you also predict the exact response if a prayer was not included. Personally, I would love to watch the freak out, but I grow very tired of compromising, and just want to watch the other side burn and seethe. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/marciepooh Marcella McIntyre

    “(This is where all the Baptists should be saying “Amen!” Yet somehow the SouthernBaptists never seem to join in.)”AMEN! But the preacher at my church-in-law (husband’s church and Southern Baptist ) would deny it should ever be so. I can’t tell you how many times I have gritted my teeth as he says things like ‘we need revival in America to get us out of this recession.’ (Since we live 2 hours away from his hometown we usually attend my church. And Brother P. isn’t “his” preacher, just the preacher at his church, if that makes sense to you.)

    To Reverend Ref – I would have happily gotten married by the judge before (or after, for that matter) our wedding to get the legal bit over with but it costs an extra $50 (iirc) and you have to make an appointment. It was cheaper and easier to have my pastor sign the form. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/j.alex.harman John Alexander Harman

    Did the Snickers ad air before or after Babylon 5 did the same thing?  The premise there was that each of the cultures represented on the station was invited to hold an open ceremony showcasing their religious beliefs, in the interest of advancing interspecies understanding.  After mulling it over, Commander Sinclair (himself an agnostic product of a Jesuit education) made the humans’ ceremony a reception line showcasing Earth’s vast religious diversity.  (Episode 1-06, “The Parliament of Dreams,” for anyone interested.)

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Atheists do not worship science. The very idea of worshiping science — of treating religion as science, or vice versa — is ridiculous and insulting to both religion and science. They are entirely different things with entirely different purposes. 

    This atheist would dress nicely in business wear and say something like, “let us all try for good judgment.” Other atheists would say different things. Because atheism is not a religion. We have no Lord’s Prayer, we have no priests. Sometimes atheists can become dogmatic, because people can become dogmatic about literally anything. But herding atheists would be not like herding cats, but like trying to herd cats and rats and bats and mongooses and ants and elephants and hyenas and…

    Atheism is not a belief. It is an absence of belief. We do not have a community, though of course there are people who like to set themselves up as leaders of this nonexistent community, because atheists are people too, with all the good and bad that entails. The only thing atheists have in common is that we do not believe the supernatural, if it exists, has manifested in any way anyone has yet described. Plenty of atheists will insist the supernatural does not and cannot exist. Others will say maybe it does, but it is an unnecessary postulate. (I’m of the latter group.) Others could not care less about the whole argument and have simply decided to opt out of religion. This is like if some Christians said Christ is the savior and others said he was just a guy with some good ideas. 

    We already have poets recite at inaugurations. What more “benediction” do we need? It strikes this former Lutheran as highly blasphemous to imagine that God does not notice who the new president is, and that She could be swayed by someone speaking words at this swearing-in, and worst of all, that She would care about the human illusion of nations in any way, shape, or form. “Well, the Canadians had a good Muslim speak at their thing, but those blasted Americans had a right-wing Evangelical, I shall call disaster upon the Americans! So let’s see, this massive blizzard needs to hit Detroit but avoid Windsor…” 

  • http://lliira.dreamwidth.org/ Lliira

    Marrying at the courthouse is so easy! I had never imagined marrying would be so easy, it was great. I think if more people dispensed with the big church ceremony, more people would get married for the right reasons, not to mention the time, stress, and money saved.

  • ReverendRef

     I think if more people dispensed with the big church ceremony, more people would get married for the right reasons,

    This implies that people get married for the wrong reasons just because they get married in a big church ceremony.  People get married for all sorts of reasons, the most popular being love.  I don’t see how getting married in courthouse automatically makes the marriage about “the right reasons.” 

    I will say, though, that if people got married at a courthouse, then only the people who truly believed that God was part of their marriage would be showing up at churches.  The problem (or part of the problem) is that people have this fantasy or image that it’s just not a wedding unless done in a church . . . and then we never see those people again.  I have officiated for exactly two couples (soon to be three) who have made the church part of their lives post-wedding.

    not to mention the time, stress, and money saved.

    And I agree with you 100 percent on this point.  Someone should tell them that the money spent on weddings would be better put into some kind of retirement savings plan.  It would be a good start.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Someone should tell them that the money spent on weddings would be better put into some kind of retirement savings plan.

    I happen to agree, but have fun convincing anyone of that. Big positive life change = big party. Not all people do that, but for the ones that do, that ain’t ever gonna change.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marciepooh Marcella McIntyre

    Well, if my husband and I hadn’t thought a ceremony with friends and relatives in attendance where we made commitment to each other and God wasn’t important we would have saved a lot of money and just paid the court a little extra to get married by the judge. But we think otherwise. :)

    One question I had was why do we have to ‘get married’ by any one why don’t couples just get the license and it’s good. If you’re skipping the God part of the equation anyway why do  you have to take vows before a judge? (Not that I expect anyone here to actually have a good answer beyond tradition.)

  • ReverendRef

    EllieMuraski:   Big positive life change = big party.

    Oh, I get that.  I admit to doing the same when I got married.  But seriously . . . $2300 for a wedding dress is a bit much.  There are ways to do the “big wedding” without putting yourself into debt for 5+ years.

    Marcella McIntyre: One question I had was why do we have to ‘get married’ by any one why
    don’t couples just get the license and it’s good. If you’re skipping the
    God part of the equation anyway why do  you have to take vows before a
    judge?

    My opinion here (and I could be wrong) is that marriage, at it’s most basic, is a legal contract between two people.  So besides making public vows, you are also swearing to enter into the contract as interpreted by the laws of the state.  This way one party, or the state, can have recourse if things are not what they seem.  That’s probably a long way of saying, “If it’s done before a judge or JP, that puts a little more ‘oomph’ behind the license.”

  • EllieMurasaki

    Oh, you weren’t saying what I thought you were saying. Okay. Sorry. Your actual point is something more worth trying to convince people of than what I thought your point was.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    You mean kind of like this? One of my favorite bits from Babylon 5′s first series. 
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGYCMXfBrPc

  • vsm

    I still say Sinclair should have just shown the ambassadors old Warner Bros. cartoons.

  • EllieMurasaki

    A distressing number of those cartoons are overtly racist…

  • stardreamer42

     I did the whole church-gown-and-bridesmaids thing once, mostly for my mother. If/when I marry my current partner, we will definitely be doing it in the courthouse. And THEN we’ll have a party for all our friends, at which he will be in the dress and I’ll be in the tux.

  • stardreamer42

     Watching that still sends shivers down my spine, in the good way.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ann-Unemori/100001112760232 Ann Unemori

    True and sad, (plus banned from TV). Walt Disney himself was anti-Semantic. 

  • Tricksterson

    Don’t know if it was inspired by this but it reminds me of the babylon 5 episode where Sinclair presented Earth’s religious view by calling in a lineup of pretty much every faith you can name and also an atheist.

  • Tricksterson

    So maybe a representative of the religion with the snazziest outfits should be called up.

  • Tricksterson

    Ant Semantic?  I do not think that means what you think it means ;D

  • ReverendRef

    And on the topic of, well, the original topic . . . I see that President Obama asked the Rev. Luis Leon, Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church to give the closing benediction.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    Wrong era. The “Duck Dodgers” series of Daffy Duck cartoons were kind of a thing on the series. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    Anti-Semitic is what you meant, but I wouldn’t be surprised if attempts to discern greater meaning out of his cartoons would have irritated Disney as well. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/jrandyowens Randy Owens

    Not to mention, well, y’know, Warner Bros. ≠ Disney.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    I don’t understand the theological basis for the joke, but I enjoyed the mental image of an entire congregation holding hymnals and singing “Brains!”

    No theological basis whatsoever. I was gently teasing Fred about a typo.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Definitely get someone from outside the Christian tent. Nobody would be preferable, but I doubt Obama would have the nerve for that. For political reasons a rabbi is the best bet, evangelicals would have a rougher time attacking a Jewish leader than a Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu leader. Either that or someone connected to civil rights movement.

    I disagree. Obviously no public prayer at a secular event is the way to go. But if there must be one, and it must be generally associated with some religion or other (and I find it hard to imagine a prayer that’s not), then it should be whatever religion the President belongs to. Otherwise it looks wildly tokenistic.

  • RPierard

    I think Fred has an idea whose time has come.  As an honest-to-goodness Baptist and a self-identified evangelical who co-authored a controversial book on civil religion (at least in my community; everybody else ignored it or was unaware of its existence) I can show how the inaugural prayers evolved into become part and parcel of American civil religion once the practice began in the 20th century.  Dispensing with the prayers entirely would be a desirable action, although of course that would bring the wrath of all practitioners of civil religion (much if not most of the country) down upon President Obama’s head.  So don’t look for that to happen.

  • KevinC

    Well, if the goal is to cause right-wing headsplosions, how ’bout the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?  *evil grin*  On a more serious note, I’d be delighted with no prayer, but I expect they’ll find somebody Christian(ish) enough to appease the right-wingers, somewhat.

  • histrogeek

     I think the token ship sailed some time ago. Rick Warren was essentially a token, a token of an out demographic to show them that big bad Obama was OK with them. It didn’t work partly because of the bottomless depths of resentment and hate his group has for progressives of any type and part because the same group sees themselves as entitled to a monopoly on public ritual (sort of the establishment tell).
    It frankly doesn’t occur to many of them that anyone other than them has the same rights they have. So bringing in other religions shows them exactly what pluralism really means, in a way that even no benediction does not. Some, the ones deluded into thinking that they just want “equal time,” get a taste of what equal time really means. Those might actually think pluralism or, gasp, non-establishment are the way to go. The proto- and not-so-proto-hegemons of course will whine no matter what.

  • http://www.facebook.com/EricaFinneyBillings Erica Finney Billings

    Hear, hear!

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

     

    Wonder what an atheist “holy man” would look like, a scientist’s white lab coat and a telescope?

    I really wish we could ditch the idea that “atheist” and “scientist” are somehow especially linked. It’s got a whole host of follow-on assumptions that are terrible: scientists must be assumed to be atheists until proven otherwise; non-atheist scientists are inferior and deluded; science itself is pro-atheist; religion must be anti-science; that atheism is exclusively the domain of the highly educated.

    Of the atheists among my closest friends, only one is a scientist. Among the others are a homemaker, a retail manager, and a management consultant.


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