From the Editor:
How to Pray
by Mark Silk
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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”).
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.
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.
Obama’s witness was of the generic, civil religious kind.
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.”
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.
Silk's blog on religion and politics.