Praying the Inauguration – Who prayed what and who cares how? 4

The Rev. Rick Warren, of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., gives the invocation as President-elect Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, left, bow their heads during swearing-in ceremonies at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)

We are almost done with inauguration week. Almost. The National Prayer Service, a tradition which dates back to 1789, is happening today, but many prayers have been publicly offered this week and a few have generated great discussion even before they were offered.

First it was announced that Rick Warren would provide the invocation at the inauguration itself. Many people were furious at this given Warren’s stance on homosexuality. I was able to hear this prayer (I missed the benediction) and thought that it was OK. The text is here. In an online forum of Episcopal clergy there were many  outraged that Warren concluded his prayer in the name of Jesus and with the Lord’s prayer. (Am I the only one who wondered why Obama did not join in reciting the Lord’s prayer?)

While I do not think it was the most engaging prayer I have ever heard I think it is laughable that we (especially other Christian clergy) should be critical of someone offering a prayer in the form of their religious tradition and convictions. After all, that is who they are and presumably why they were chosen. Criticize a Christian pastor for praying to Jesus? I would no more criticize that than I would a Muslim cleric praying in Arabic to ‘Allah.

Then there was Bishop Gene Robinson whose prayer was on Sunday, before Warren’s but I deal with it hear since he was apparently asked after Warren’s participation was announced (although accounts, including Robinson’s differ on that). His invocation was at the concert given at the Lincoln memorial. The text is here. This apparently was not aired on HBO and MSNBC and there is quite a lot of hot generated about why that happened.

His prayer, as you can imagine was largely hailed as wonderful on the aforementioned list. It was OK and I find nothing objectionable aside from his wishy-washy universalistic opening, “O God of our many understandings, we pray that you will….” It was this inclusiveness of his prayer that has been particularly singled out as being excellent by some. I sense a self-loathing among many Christian clergy that we cannot even pray (or are embarrassed when others do) as Christians.

In all of this discussion about the prayers and the people praying I am reminded of  the true statement that equality is not sameness. I would add that inclusiveness is not universalism. It is about participation and respect, including to one’s own faith.

All of that being said, it is odd that the PIC did not include very many (none that I heard, but I am told there were others) prayers by non-Christians….

(The National Prayer Service has occurred, which has many non-Christians participating in it but was “at its core, Christian to reflect Obama’s personal beliefs.” I have not seen a transcript yet.)


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4 thoughts on “Praying the Inauguration – Who prayed what and who cares how?

  • Richard Wright

    1) Pres Obama was in an awkward spot when Warren started the Our Father. Yes he is a Christian but (if you will pardon the obvious cliche) president of many who are not. I can understand somewhat if he hesitated at this point. It is one thing to invite a Christian to pray and expect (as many Episcopal clergy apparently do not) him/her to pray as such. Perhaps another to “join in” a prayer that is specifically Christian.

    2) I thought the benediction was just… tacky. Black, brown, “yellow” (yellow?!? who the heck uses that term for Asian people?), and “white might embrace the right” (as if they have never done so?). Tacky and mildly offensive. Not that I am planning to make a big stink about that.

    3) But here again – those of a more liberal persuasion were most distressed about Warren. And yet who (and many will argue this point, fairly enough) offered a prayer that was less politicized (one could hear the agenda in Robinson’s) and less… crass/tasteless… than the others heard that day? Whose prayer did not have the feel of an axe being ground or a finger being poked in our face? That of the big bad “fundamentalist” (which Warren is not contrary to the fulminations of some).

    I wonder if the whole “civil religion” enterprise is just asking for trouble.

    • Chris Brady Post author

      And in reference to whether Obama should have recited the Lord’s Prayer/Our Father or not, I am not condemning him that he did not recite it, I am wondering why he did not. As you know, I have run in ecumenical and inter-faith circles for a long time and I have found that the best approach is simply to be oneself. So as a Christian I would have (and did, while watching it on TV in a room with my staff and students) quietly recite the prayer along with Warren. If it had been a Jewish prayer I usually do not.

      (There are different theological considerations there as opposed to being in, for example, a Muslim service, since we could argue that as Christians the God that is being worshiped in a Jewish service is the same God that we worship as well, but that would be a different conversation.)

      I am sure that Obama has over the years as a practicing Christian recited the Lord’s Prayer many, many times in a corporate context. Yet he chose not to in this context. Fair enough, no judgment from me, just a consideration of whether I would do the same and wondering what others would do.

  • Chris Brady Post author

    Rick, thank you for reminding me of Lowery’s benediction. I had meant to comment on it and got swept up in work (can you believe it?). In looking up the prayers I came across an explanation of Lowery’s final comments about color. This is from a different blog, but conveys the same rhyme/ideas (when I originally read it, somewhere that I cannot now find, “If you’re black, get back” was the first line).

    When I was a kid we use to say:

    * If you’re white, you’re right
    * If you’re yellow, you’re mellow
    * If you’re red, your dead
    * If you’re brown, stick around
    * And if you’re black, get back.

    What Lowery is talking about is institutional racism and the color preferences that existed in America, especially during his time. He is not talking to or about White people per se. To break this down further:

    * Blacks getting in back refers to having to sit in the back of the bus and not having equal rights in America.
    * Browns sticking around is the solidarity that was forming when Hispanics began to join with Blacks during the “revolution” of Black Power.
    * Reds being dead refers to the slaughter of the Native American and the plight they face in “their” land.
    * Yellow being mellow means that Asians were pacified especially after WWII (internment of Japanese-Americans and other Asians being lumped into the “Jap” category).
    * And finally, white being right refers to the preference and power that whites (as deemed by various Jim Crow laws and US government city, state and certain federal institutions) had/have in America.

    From Black Tokyo

  • Debbie Harris

    I think that the prayer by Bishop Robinson was in appropiate in a sense that he only identifies women, people of color, and bixsexuals, transgender, homosexuals as people that have suffered discrimination. Everyone is touched by discrimination at some time or another. Every religion has suffered some form of persecution, with the majority of it being aimed at Christians around the world for having such a strong resilient faith to believe that God has the power to transform lives, heal the sick, rise the dead, and delivered the mentally unstable. And, his prayer even tells us to hate certain things, how does a Bishop of a church stand up and promote hate, when hate is the many cause of wars and strife throughout the nation. Hate is such a destructive form of thinking, I believe that we should fight for a cause but fighting for a cause, is not the same as hating someone or something. Rick Warren is controversial, just at many in the history of the United States for taking a stand on marriage, but he does no condemn the gays or bisexuals but he expresses different views that do not promote their cause therefore he is considered controversial. I admire people who take a stand, a least thee are not compromising and allowing everyone else to alter what they believe to avoid probable conflict. Apart of what makes this country great is our different views, but our country is crumbling in our pursuit of identity. We are defined as a melting pot with a mulit-cultural belief system and we have forgotten the labor of our forefathers how they fought to promote the Christian values. Proclaiming our Christian roots does not make us any less non multi-cultural it just means that we are standing on the foundation of our fathers as a country, and their are other countries that stand on their foundations in pre-dominantly muslim countries. Everyone may want us to change the foundation, but if the foundation changes than it becomes an unstable house. I think this is evident due to our currrent economic woes of recession.