Who should pray at the inauguration? How about nobody?

Who should pray at the inauguration? How about nobody? January 15, 2013

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.

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