"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.
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