Very Public Prayers

Well before the actual inauguration of President Barak Obama there was a chorus of complaints about his choice of Rick Warren to give the inauguration prayer. What might just as easily have been interpreted as an attempt to link up with a populist expression of mainstream religious values was interpreted as a tilt toward the minister’s views on abortion and gay rights. Never mind that during the campaign, in front of that very same Rick Warren, candidate Obama had clearly outlined his differences on those points and maintained ideological independence. Many seemed determined to embarrass the new administration for the prayer choice and see religious partisanship at work.

It was almost an anticlimax to hear the actual prayer at the January event. To be sure the possibility of it giving offence was diminished greatly by the chuckles at Chief Justice Roberts fumbling in the administration of the oath. But it was a secularly sacred moment and all turned out well—even the public prayer.

If there was a problem with the prayer it was its very broadness, not any narrow religious viewpoint that some had feared. The good pastor presaged the new President’s inclusiveness by early on throwing a theological bone to Islam by saying of God, “You are the compassionate and merciful One.” True: and expressed in the familiar terminology of the Koran. At the end, before reciting the Lord’s Prayer from the New Testament, Rick Warren identified “the One who changed my life” as “Yeshua, Isa, Jesus, Jesus (hay-SOOS).” Most religions covered there, including the Republicanism of the past eight years!

It was a very formal prayer that invoked the Creator, the uniqueness of the United States (avoiding direct claims of Divine privilege that have intrude into past pronouncements), and looked to God for help in the difficult days ahead. Its only theological gaffe, based on my reading of the Bible, was the assumption that Dr. King and others were watching from heaven. After all the Bible says that “the dead know not anything” (Proverbs 21:4 ) and Paul looked forward to the return of Jesus at the end of days when “the dead will be raised.” (1 Corinthians 15:52 ) However, it is a common enough assumption and we should not hold it against the prayer-giver’s good will. What it does, though, is illustrate the hazards of a public prayer, either endorsed by the state or, as is likely here, given under the smile of the ruler and tending to legitimize a particular religious viewpoint—or, worse, none at all, other than a broadly acceptable syncretistic model of faith.

Curiously it was another prayer, the benediction given by civil rights icon Joseph E. Lowery, that seemed more inclined to move into spiritual heart-searching. When he prayed that “we have sown the seeds of greed—the wind of greed and corruption” it was pastoral and intensely revealing of our national condition. He continued by praying that “even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect Your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.”

The prayer lowered its tone a little at the end by a reference to the racial inequalities of the past which tended to caricature the real sin of bigotry. The blogosphere had a paroxysm of comment on this, but maybe we should be more inclined to understand the experience of the old civil rights warrior.

Another warrior of sorts gave a curiously partisan prayer at the opening ceremony of the inauguration sequence held at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, January 18. Gene Robinson, a truly divisive figure in the religious world, did not hesitate to load up his prayer with references to “gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.” The ordination of Bishop Robinson, an openly gay cleric, has split his Episcopal community, and surely represents broader religious contention. Certainly the larger faith communities alluded to in Rick Warren’s prayer have series issues with Robinson’s theology. The decision to include Robinson does indeed show a social inclusiveness which might indicate otherwise good intentions with the Obama administration. But it shows up the weakness of co-opting religion at a civic occasion. It does amount to a public endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint—given that there is an active dispute presently within faith circles.

There was another prayer given in the context of the Inauguration of President Obama. Senate Chaplain Barry Black prayed at the luncheon held in the Capitol Statuary Hall right after the ceremony. His two minute, 148-word prayer was a model invocation that centered on the call for Divine blessing on the event and guidance for the new administration.

Before the event Chaplain Black told a reporter that prayers are not “another act in the drama.” He decried any political directives for the prayer. “I would be very concerned if someone or some committee was standing by to scrutinize what someone had passionately felt compelled to say to God on behalf of the people for a particular occasion,” he told them.

He is right, of course. Prayer controlled or directed by others, especially the state, is noxious. At the end of the day, each prayer given at the time of the inauguration is one person speaking to God. To require more is to unravel what little we still have of the church-state distance required in the U.S. Constitution.

The Supreme Court has often been forced to reconcile the persistent religious activity by legislators and under government auspices. They
have come to call it all Ceremonial Deism. This strikes me as an oddly damning term. The justices settled on it as a way to describe religious behavior and symbols which have become part of society and lost their distinctive religious nature. But the term is odd; because in spite of revisionist attempts to portray the founding fathers as religionists determined to establish some sort of religious state, the reality is that a significant number of them were Deists. Back then Deists were seen for what they would be today: men who acknowledge the fact of God, but act as if He were an absentee landlord.

I would rather remember the many members of the society in the original colonies who were overtly religious in their outlook. The Great Awakening of 1750 produced an activist religion in many ways. However, the view that this dynamic faith needed to be protected from the state was the prevailing one.

Curiously, the role of the chaplain was one area of church-state contention that seems to have slipped past that early concern. President James Madison, framer of the Bill of Rights, wrote much about this seeming contradiction. Obviously, as a person of faith, he lived happily with the function of the chaplain, but he maintained clearly the inconsistency in the establishment of the function.

Writing in his “Detached Memoranda,” Madison made the point that Congress should pay for their own clergy and not use tax money for that purpose. “If religion consists in voluntary acts of individuals, singly or voluntarily associated, and if it be proper that public functionaries, as well as their constituents should discharge their religious duties, let them, like their constituents, do it at their own expense,” was his argument. “How small a contribution from each member of Congress would suffice for the purpose! How just would it be in its principle! How noble in its exemplary sacrifice to the genius of the Constitution; and the divine rights of conscience! Why should the expense of a religious worship for the Legislature be paid by the public, more than that for the Executive or Judiciary branches of the Government?”

Why indeed? We had better pray that the prayers paid for and organized on our behalf reflect our views and not the government’s. Come to think of it, that is precisely the problem. No government can possibly accurately represent all the religious views of its citizens without watering all down to meaninglessness or excluding others.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."