Winter 2009, Vol. 11, No. 3

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
How to Pray

The Mormon Proposition

No Saints Need Apply

Picturing Palin's Faith

Bishops at Bay

Downplaying Religion
in Mumbai

What is Lashkar?

The Beat Goes On

Riverside's Black-White Divide

Scandalous Days
in the OCA


New books

From the Editor:
How to Pray by Mark Silk 

When he invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his swearing-in ceremony, Barack Obama was acting very much in the original spirit of the exercise. It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who instituted inaugural praying 72 years ago, and it’s pretty clear that in doing so he intended to send a political message or two.

Prior to that, the sole manifestations of religion in the ceremony were the habitual use of a Bible for the oath of office and the traditional (but not constitutionally mandated) tag, “so help me God.” Often, the president would kiss the Bible. In 1929, Herbert Hoover did. In 1937, Roosevelt didn’t.

Otherwise, the only prayer associated with the official beginning of a new presidential term was one given in the Senate chamber by the Senate chaplain after the vice president was sworn in. In 1937, Roosevelt decided to have the vice presidential swearing-in take place as part of the main event and, presumably not to deprive the Senate chaplain of an accustomed duty, he let the current holder of that position, the Episcopal priest ZeBarney T. Phillips, kick off the proceedings with an invocation.

But as night follows day, so must a benediction follow an invocation, and here Roosevelt broke ground by giving the honor to Msgr. John A. Ryan, the foremost proponent of social welfare policies in the American Catholic church. Ryan was a Roosevelt confidant and so strong a supporter of his policies that he not only earned the title “The Right Reverend New Dealer” but also took up cudgels against Father Charles Coughlin, the notoriously anti-Roosevelt, anti-New Deal, and anti-Semitic “radio priest” from Detroit.

During the previous fall’s campaign, Ryan had gone on the radio himself to attack Coughlin for “ugly, cowardly and flagrant calumnies” in accusing FDR of being “anti-God” and a Communist—a charge Republicans were also leveling against the New Deal. Arguably, FDR instituted the inaugural prayers precisely to thank him for his efforts. And also to signal that the Catholic church—the religious base of the Democratic Party in the North—had arrived as something like an equal partner in national ceremonious occasions. Not to mention making it clear to the country that the New Deal was not communistic.

By selecting Warren, Obama also lit upon a clergyman with whom he had established a friendship of political convenience, an important figure in a constituency—white evangelicals—to whom he was eager to appeal. And like FDR, he well understood the importance of wrapping his Democratic administration in some heavy religious gauze.

If Ryan’s appearance on the inaugural platform raised any hackles, I’ve found no evidence of it. Warren, by contrast, raised more than the Obama folks seem to have bargained for, thanks in the first instance to his support for Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative reinstating the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.

Moreover, when it comes to evangelical pastors nowadays, how they pray on occasions like this is as subject to scrutiny as the stands they take on the issues of the day. Although, so far as I know, there is nothing to prohibit them from simply invoking “God” as other clergy do, they tend to insist on bringing Jesus into the act.

One argument for such particularism is that, in a land of robust religious diversity, clergy ought to pray in the language of their own tradition rather than in generic terms. Warren perhaps gestured in this “it’s just how we do it” direction by announcing his prayer “in the name of the one who changed my life.”

But then he identified that one by four names: “Yeshua, Isa, Jesús, Jesus”—as he is known in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, and English. Some commentators took it as a gesture of inclusion, noting as well his citation of Judaism’s central prayer (“Hear, O Israel!”) and a portion of the saying the begins almost every chapter of the Koran (“you are the compassionate and merciful one”).

Yet American Jews know Yeshua as the name by which Jews for Jesus proselytize. And while Muslims honor Isa, to name him as the one who “taught us to pray” the Lord’s Prayer (which Warren then proceeded to do) cannot be considered as any kind of recognition of Islam.

Certainly it wasn’t understood that way by the pious U.S. Army base commander who, according to a letter sent by an officer in attendance to Huffington Post, jumped up and cried, “God Bless him for having the courage to pray for all of the lost souls in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ!”

In the world of conservative white evangelicalism, a public gathering is an opportunity to witness for your faith. And that’s exactly what Rick Warren took his inaugural opportunity to do.

By contrast, Obama’s witness was of the generic, civil religious kind.

Ever since Robert Bellah launched an academic industry with his 1967 essay, “Civil Religion in America,” presidential inaugural addresses have been the faith’s primary scriptures, and Obama’s own contribution to the genre will give the professors something to chew on for years to come. For my money, the most interesting part of what he had to say relates to Bellah’s messianic desire for a merging of the American thing into something bigger and better:

“It is useless to speculate on the form such a civil religion might take, though it obviously would draw on religious traditions beyond the sphere of biblical religion alone. Fortunately, since the American civil religion is not the worship of the American nation but an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality, the reorganization entailed by such a new situation need not disrupt the American civil religion’s continuity. A world civil religion could be accepted as a fulfillment and not as a denial of American civil religion. Indeed, such an outcome has been the eschatological hope of American civil religion from the beginning. To deny such an outcome would be to deny the meaning of America itself.”

Here, perhaps, is Obama’s version of the hope’s realization:

“We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.”

This will be too grandiose and hegemonic for many, but a global civil religion predicated on the American vision of inclusion has its appeal, whether or not the Rick Warrens of the world choose to play ball.

 Spiritual Politics
Mark Silk's blog on religion and politics.


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