Will Obama’s inauguration respect all faiths?

The prayers at next Tuesday’s ceremony will signal the extent of America’s inclusiveness

By Marc Saperstein, January 14, 2009

Prayer plays an important role in American public life. Sessions of Congress begin with an invocation by a member of the clergy. Many graduation ceremonies of American universities are framed by an invocation and benediction — as are presidential inaugurations. The first inaugural invocations and benedictions were given by Protestant and Catholic clergy. When Rabbi Nelson Glueck, President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, gave the benediction for President John F Kennedy in 1961, and the Greek Orthodox Patriarch four years later, their respective religious traditions were symbolically recognised alongside Protestantism and Roman Catholicism as belonging to the American mainstream. No woman has served as yet in this capacity, nor has a representative of any other faith.

This year, the selection of the Rev Rick Warren, pastor of a mega-church in California, to give the benediction, created controversy within the Democratic Party. Warren recently asserted that marriage rights for gays were equivalent to extending similar marriage rights for those engaged in bigamy and incest.

But Warren’s best-selling book The Purpose-Driven Life has made him a pastoral presence for millions of Americans, and he has a strong record in mobilising his evangelical church to address poverty, homelessness and environmental degradation. The possibility of including millions of Evangelical Christians in a broader coalition during this tumultuous period was apparently appealing enough to risk alienating a significant segment of the existing Democratic base.

The political implications of public prayer are manifest not only in the selection of clergy, of course, but in what is said. The final day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado, was to climax with the official nomination of Barack Obama. Shortly after Obama’s speech, the convention would conclude with a final benediction by the Rev Joel Hunter, pastor of a Florida mega-church. (My brother David, Director of the American Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington DC, delivered the invocation several hours earlier.) Hunter is a Republican, and many Evangelical Republicans were dismayed by his participation in a Democratic event. But his dilemma that evening was not because of his political affiliation; rather, it was how his concluding prayer — the last words before the historic meeting would be adjourned — was to end.

Like many Christian clergy, Hunter’s practice was to conclude each prayer with the phrase “in Jesus’ name, Amen” — words that would make many Jews, Muslims, and others in the audience of 84,000 feel excluded. Hunter wanted his prayer to be as inclusive as possible. Yet he could not compromise on a core theological belief in the intercessory role of Jesus.

The thousands there that night heard Hunter say: “Because we are in a country that is still welcoming all faiths, I would like all of us to close this prayer in the way your faith tradition would close your prayer… You ready? One, two, three. [Softly] In Jesus’ name, Amen. [Full voice] Let’s go change the world for good.”

As he ended the prayer in his own tradition, thousands of people throughout Denver Stadium were simultaneously concluding in their own words, in their own languages. Some simply with “Amen”. Some with “Amen, ken yehi ratson”. Some with silence. In a final cadence of harmonious sound, each individual could contribute. An impressively elegant solution.

Many will be listening to the inauguration invocation to see whether Pastor Rick Warren incorporates language pertaining to gays, but the most interesting part may well be how he decides to conclude it.

Marc Saperstein is Principal of Leo Baeck College

Last updated: 4:55pm, January 14 2009