God & the Inauguration

"In God We Trust" may be the national motto, but it hardly clarifies anything. The more interesting question is "In Which God Do We Trust?" and the inaugural festivities rendered a mixed verdict.

When Bishop Gene Robinson told the New York Times that he was "horrified" that earlier inaugural prayers had been so "specifically and aggressively Christian" you knew his own inaugural contribution would be precious. And precious it was. The Rt. Rev. of New Hampshire managed to misunderstand the historical resonance of the word "tolerance" describing it as "mere tolerance." He commended the "reconciling style" of Abraham Lincoln, as if Lincoln’s style mattered more than, say, his perseverance in prosecuting a horrible, harsh yet necessary war. And Robinson wished the new President to bathe everlastingly in victimhood ("Help him remember his own oppression as a minority, drawing on that experience of discrimination, that he might seek to change the lives of those who are still its victims") even though one of the most remarkable qualities of Mr. Obama’s candidacy was his repudiation of such victimhood.

But, what was most disturbing about Bishop Robinson’s prayer was the image of God he portrayed in his effort to avoid being aggressively Christian. The prayer suggests that instead of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whom some of us have come to know as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Bishop Robinson prays to a God who bears a remarkable resemblance to a therapist. 

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Bishop Robinson has become a household name because he is the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop, but that is not my concern: I can’t get over the fact that Anglicans have married bishops in the first place! The real reason to be suspicious of Robinson is that his inaugural prayer was a walking caricature of a lefty theology that perceives the potential for giving offense so comprehensively that the concern for political correctness, normally a canard of the right, actually trumps all else and we are left with a theology that is merely anodyne. I found Robinson’s prayer myopic in the extreme and remain convinced that this man has very little to say.

Pastor Rick Warren had a lot to say at the Inaugural, most of it rambling, all of it distinctly Christian. He look disheveled and slightly nervous, But, he did something that preachers should do more often. By ending with the Lord’s Prayer, he took a thoroughly familiar prayer but set it in a new context, giving new meaning to the old standby. It was like placing a precious jewel in a new setting. His recitation of four different names for Jesus of Nazareth seemed forced, not inclusive, and a little like showing off his scholarly facility with other languages. His reference to Dr. King and the "great cloud of witnesses" served to remind the nation that Dr. King was not only a civil rights leader but a Baptist preacher, and that King’s political activism flowed from his religious commitment, not the other way round.

Unlike Robinson, the God to whom Warren prayed had some attributes of sovereignty and Warren was unafraid to quote from the Scriptures. His opening lines were specific but hardly exclusionary. "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. The Scripture tells us ‘Hear, oh 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." There are echoes of Jewish and Muslim prayers in these words which set an inclusionary tone. And, the God to whom Warren prayed has more in common with the God of Israel and the God of Islam precisely because He is almighty and loving not merely therapeutic. Overall, I wish Warren had been more concise, but I give the man who aspires to be the next Billy Graham a B+.

Rev. Joseph Lowery’s benediction turned out to be the most controversial of the three prayers because he finished with an attempt at light-heartedness that was, unfortunately, borderline racist. If Warren had referred to "the red man" or the "yellow" you can imagine the howls that would have been forthcoming. But, my father still occasionally refers to my black friends as "colored" and he means no ill by it, and Rev. Lowery’s words were delivered with lightness not malice. Just as importantly, the words were delivered by a man of demonstrated liberal instincts. He is no bigot and only a fool would charge him with bigotry instead of an unfortunate word choice.

Lowery began his prayer with a most fortunate word choice. I remember the first time I heard the song "Lift Every Voice and Sing" from which he quoted. It was at a Methodist church with a mid-twentieth century Casavant organ that had just the right string tones to catch the swing of the jazzy modulations in the hymn that is also known as the Black National Anthem. Many white Americans do not know this tune, but should. Like the hymn – "This Little Light of Mine" - sung at the morning service at St. John’s church before the inauguration itself, it is a song that captures the interplay of faith and politics at the heart of the civil rights movement without which Tuesday’s inauguration would not have been possible.

In his book "The American Gospel" John Meachem described what he called "civic religion," a religion that acknowledges an indistinct, non-denominational God who may have some vague providential role in human history but is never so specific as to cause offense. The affection for "civic religion" is really a rush to the lowest common denominator and it should be resisted. It may not cause offense, but it is dishonest. The founders were Deists, and our constitutional arrangements may be better than they otherwise would be because they were Deists. But, there are no more Deists. We all believe in an interfering God of one sort of another. The God of the Founders, the God about whom Meachem wrote, is not a God to whom anyone prays anymore. Even Bishop Robinson wants his God to be a champion of his causes not an indifferent first mover.


The God of Meachem and the Founders always ends up as a prop for Americanism, which is a horrible form of idolatry to say the least. It seeks to sever the ethical teachings of the churches from their ecclesiastical context, but this results in a cheap moralism, a formal adherence to a set of behaviors that are no longer linked to their dogmatic source and are just as easily cast aside. Better a thoughtful atheist than a pretending Christian.

America’s principal business Tuesday was not to pray but to act, to bring one presidency to an end and begin another. The prayers demonstrated how awkwardly religion inhabits its space in the public square. It would have been neater if everyone had gotten Meachem to write their prayers, but awkwardness is not such a bad thing and, in this case, it is certainly a truer stance, one that reflects the many and varied ways Americans conceive of the Godhead. And the man at the center of it all, our new President, seems to want the prayers of all, no matter how they are voiced and to whom.

Michael Sean Winters

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9 years 6 months ago
Perfect analysis, especially of Bishop Robinson. While I consider myself very progressive, I left the Episcopal Church largely because it seemed like it was just a therapy that told us to feel good about ourselves (or to feel guilty and immobilized by our racist, sexist, classist past), without looking to ways of letting ourselves being transformed, thus working more transformatively. Later, I had the opportunity to do the full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. While very rooted in values of justice, peace, human rights, and dignity, that are spoken about extensively, the way in which I found myself challenged by this spirituality was amazing. Talking about therapy vs. spirituality, my Jesuit spiritual director made the comment that ''Freud was about making you feel good about yourself; Ignatius wants you to get over yourself so that you can work for the kingdom, fully recognizing and using all of your gifts.'' One of the things that seems most important for Christians to do is to open themselves up to being deeply challenged and decentered. Something that I picked up clearly in Warren and Lowery and Obama, but something that I didn't see in Robinson.
9 years 6 months ago
I suspect Rev. Lowery had in mind this blues song by “Big Bill” Broonzy that would have been quite familiar to him and all blacks of a certain age and experience. If, so, his benediction was an updating of what experience into the mode or the present. The bitterness of his experience during the time of rampant segregation, oppression and immanent violence gave him the right to make comments that whites couldn’t begin to understand, or have the right to make. This song can be found on the CD: "Big Bill Blues" (Vogue). The recording date was September 20, 1951 in Paris. Black, Brown And White (B. B. Broonzy) This little song that I'm singin' about People you know it's true If you're black and gotta work for a living This is what they will say to you They says if you was white, should be all right If you was brown, stick around But as you's black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back
9 years 6 months ago
I took a look at the Gene Robinson prayer on youtube after reading this entry. I have to say, I had a completely different take on it. From the very start, "God of our many understandings" and the various early blessings asked -- the gift of tears, the gift of anger -- I found this a prayer frequently grounded in what Metz calls the "dangerous memory" of oppression and prejudice in the world. Myopic -- how so?
9 years 6 months ago
Wonderful article.Worthwhile reading and allows one to concieve of the often times hard to see role of spirit in social affairs.Through substance not style alone the new President has distanced himself from all of the old limitations of dualism so rife in America and that is a breath of fresh air allowing us to see the Transcendental role and ambit of Faith which for too long has been left to conservatives and capitalists to defend and exploit.Now the hard part.Can he really keep from creating the world in his image as the previous tried to?The appeal and the winning way for the President is not moderation but to respect what transcends and this article shows that those who are not "open" to the spirit will fall flat.
9 years 6 months ago
I think you misunderstand Americanism, or maybe I do, but I don't think at has anything to do with anyone's conception of God. It has to do with freedom and the dignity of the individual. There is nothing in that ideal to conflict with Christianity - just the reverse. If anything, it jibes well with Aristotle's and St. Thomas Aquinas conception of free will (as opposed to justifying monarchism by divine right - if freedom is a gift from God, it must be the foundation of human government as well). If the existence of human freedom is a core of our theology, how can Americanism not be priviledged. St. Pius X seemed so frightened at the Americanist concept that he proclaimed it a heresy. Hopefully he simply misunderstood it. Either way, his views on Americanism are jest another reason I don't put much faith in the concept of a Magisterium - which I find has as many meanings as Americanism.
9 years 6 months ago
Although I would love to pick apart various sections of this article, I felt uncomfortable with all the prayers also and wince at the "civil religion" blessing of everything in a least common denominator. On the other hand, I think such occasions cal for something -- and most did not quibble with our generic or specific prayers at 9-11. I think it would be more honest to acknowledge that we pick a prayer in two or three major traditions without apology or have a conjoint ceremony with any number of religious leaders "blessing" Obama together in a quiet chant or in silence in their own traditions. That would be an impressive and meaningful display of common respect and good faith. Assisi in DC???

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