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Look Who's Praying at the Inauguration

The first openly gay Episcopal bishop.

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The first female president of the Disciples of Christ.

The president of the Islamic Society of North America (who also happens to be a woman).

Three rabbis.

Bono.

And one Hawaiian shirt-wearing mega-church pastor.

What do they have in common, besides taking part in the official festivities surrounding Barack Obama's inauguration as the 44th president of the United States?

They're all praying.

All of them.

Sure, Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Southern California, whose sartorial sense leans more toward Jimmy Buffett than Billy Graham, is giving the official invocation at the inauguration Tuesday. But Obama has invited a number of other prominent religious leaders -- from his own Christian tradition and others -- to provide spiritual support.

Much was made of Warren's being chosen to fill the role so often played by Graham in inaugurals past. (Graham, 90, is not in good health and no longer travels far from his home in the mountains above Asheville, N.C.)

A lot of people call Warren a homophobe. Granted, he did support Proposition 8 in California, to outlaw gay marriage, a move I thought was both thoroughly wrongheaded and out of character for him. Homosexuality and gay issues have hardly been the hallmark of Warren's ministry at Saddleback and his uber-bestseller, The Purpose Driven Life.

Like many traditional religious people, Warren believes homosexual acts -- if not homosexuality itself -- are sinful, per scripture. But does that make him a homophobe?

I'm still on the semantic fence about that one. Plenty of people saw Warren's invitation to pray over the newly sworn-in president as a slap in the face of the gay community.

Some of that outrage was tempered when word got out earlier this week that Bishop V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church -- and the man whose ordination sparked so much tumult in the American church and within the worldwide Anglican community -- will lead prayers Sunday at the official kickoff of the inauguration festivities at the Lincoln Memorial. Among the artists providing the musical portion of the celebration/service at the Lincoln Memorial are Bono, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, will.i.am., and Garth Brooks.

During the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral on Jan. 21 - the day after the inauguration - Obama has asked the Rev. Sharon Watkins to preach. She is the first female president of the Christian Church, better known as the Disciples of Christ. Also participating in the prayer service is Sojourners' own Jim Wallis as well as the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Texas minister and close confidant of George W. Bush who officiated at the wedding of Bush's daughter Jenna last spring.

So ... I'm not sensing any kind of covert sectarian message in Obama's ecclesiastical choices for the inauguration.

Still there is a message being conveyed, be it spiritual or political or both.

When I look at the lineup and design of the faith-infused events around Obama's inaugural, I see a new story -- one of radical inclusion that echoes the plurality of our new president's spiritual and social formation as a child. His mother, a secular humanist for lack of a better no-size-fits-all label, exposed her children to Christianity as well as Islam and other world religions, cultures, and philosophies. She was a student of the world and her children were, too.

When Obama embraced Christianity, he did it as an adult. The choice was his, and he chose the historic black church and the United Church of Christ denomination. (According Associated Press reports today, Obama also has asked the Rev. T.D. Jakes, pastor of the 28,000-strong Potter's Church in Dallas, to deliver the sermon at the private worship service he plans to attend at St. John's Episcopal Church in D.C. on the morning of his inaugural.) He also lives next door to a synagogue in Kenwood and knew the rabbi there well enough to call him his own.

If the religious voices involved in celebrating his inauguration are a harbinger of his political style, they say to me that the Obama administration will be one marked by collaboration and cooperation, not coercion or mandate (divine or otherwise).

"I take this to be an indication of how he intends to govern -- moving away from the polarization and bitter partisanship of the past," said Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard University in New York and author of God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush. "It's more inclusive. He's bringing more people around the table and allowing them to express themselves."

"He's somebody who knows his own mind and yet is willing to entertain differing opinions and points of view, unlike the current president," Balmer said. "I think it's an administrative and executive style that represents a dramatic break from the past."

His choice of Warren may have been motivated by political strategy, or it may have been far more pastoral and personal. While they've been friendly for a number of years, as Warren and other prominent evangelical leaders began to turn their attention (at last!) to moral issues such as AIDS in Africa, global poverty, and the environment, the relationship between the pastor and the president-elect has not been perfect. I'm told there were a few bumps in the road after the so-called "Civil Forum" at Saddleback, where Warren hosted Obama and John McCain. Some folks felt McCain was given an unfair advantage, while Obama was blindsided.

"It shows that he's a big man," Balmer said of Obama's invitation to Warren to pray at the inaugural. "He's a gracious person. Boy, what a welcome change that's going to be."

Can I get an "amen"?

Cathleen Falsani is the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.

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