Prayers in a minefield (civil religion II)

Phyllis Tickle tried to pay close attention to the prayers at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which isn’t surprising since she has written a whole shelf of books on rites of public and private prayer.

The problem was that she didn’t hear much in the way of traditional prayer, in terms of clergy offering words of praise and petition to God. Instead, the prayers sounded like lectures or mini-sermons aimed at the masses on the National Mall.

“Did I think the official prayers were disasters? No,” said Tickle, author of, among many relevant works, “Prayer Is a Place: America’s Religious Landscape Observed.”

“I just thought that they lacked the majesty of a psalm before the throne of God, substituting instead … the mundane and plebian commentary of a human being to other human beings about an established lists of errors and of desirable aims, with a little advice to God thrown in. … I’m not sure why preachers think they have to do that.”

The clergy in the rites surrounding the inauguration, of course, faced the challenge of praying in a political minefield. On one side were the atheists and secularists whose lawsuits failed to keep religious language out of the proceedings. On the other side were religious activists — liberals and conservatives — poised to judge whether the prayers made the grade, politically and doctrinally.

Pity the poor shepherd who has to please his own flock, as well as the New York Times editorial page.

Most of the early analysis focused on the decision to invite the Rev. Rick Warren — an evangelical leader who rejects Obama’s support for abortion and gay rights — to offer the invocation. Warren opened by blending a theme from his own bestseller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” with snippets of Jewish and Muslim prayers.

“Almighty God, our Father, everything we see and everything we can’t see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you. It all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory. History is your story,” he said. “Scripture tells us, ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One.’ And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made.”

The prayer also included words of thanksgiving for the election of an African-American president, an appeal for economic justice and concern for the environment. The California megachurch pastor then dared to close with clear references to Jesus — in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and English — and the Lord’s Prayer.

The benediction was by the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a strong voice from the Civil Rights Movement. He began with the poetic final lines of the “Negro National Anthem,” the classic “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and then ended with an edgy poem based on the work of blues singer Big Bill Broonzy.

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning,” he concluded, “we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say, ‘Amen.’ ”

In between, Lowery offered sharp shots of political commentary, including a pronouncement that America has recently “sown the seeds of greed,” blown by the “wind of greed and corruption” that have caused the nation to “reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption.” Thus, he asked God to “help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance.”

None of this, stressed Tickle, was all that unusual. Prayers written for use in these kinds of giant civic events are almost always “rather didactic” and “content driven.” As a rule, they also tend to be long.

On this historic inauguration day, anyone seeking the most fervent expressions of faith, hope and love needed to hear the voices in the crowd, not the leaders in the pulpit.

“The real prayers were written by the people on that mall and across the nation, with their bodies, with their voices, with their cries and with their tears,” said Tickle. “That was the religious experience that really mattered on that day.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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