The inauguration invocation is the high profile event for a member of the clergy. It's only been around since 1937, but it's grounded in a rich, religious history that's helped shaped this country.
At President-elect Barak Obama's inauguration, Pastor Rick Warren will have the honors. Pastor Warren is the senior minister of Saddleback Church in Southern California and the uber-bestselling author of "The Purpose Driven Life." Liberals objected to Warren because of his conservative views, specifically his support of Proposition 8, the ballot initiative that banned gay marriage in California.
What some see as a move to placate the gay and Lesbian community was the selection of the openly-gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson to say the prayer for the star-studded, kick-off of the inaugural week. The Inaugural Committee says it wasn't about "righting" a perceived "wrong." They said Bishop Robinson had been on their list for a while and they chose him for his message of inclusive civil rights.
But the reality is that selecting Gene Robinson for any inaugural event would make headlines. Bishop Robinson is the openly gay bishop whose elevation has caused a riff, or even schism, in the Episcopal Church and the wider Anglican Communion. Court battles over property are ongoing as conservative Episcopal congregations and dioceses leave over the issue of homosexuality and authority of the Bible.
My greatest shock, though, upon reading stories about Bishop Robinson's inclusion was not that he's an openly gay minister living with his partner. No. My biggest shock was that Robinson commented in The New York Times about past inaugural prayers. He said he was "horrified" at how "specifically and aggressively Christian they were."
"Horrified?" I'm not sure I've ever heard a Christian minister react so negatively about the faith he professes to preach and uphold. Was the Apostle Paul wrong when he said:
Romans 1:16 "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith' ( refers to Habakkuk 2:4)".
Does this mean Bishop Robinson is "ashamed" of the gospel he's been ordained to preach? Bishop Robinson explained to The Times that, "The texts I hold sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer." (NY Times)
Fair enough. And if Bishop Robinson had said only that, I would've applauded him. But his other statement revealed to me a question about what his faith means to him and how he defines it.
I could understand a Muslim being horrified, even offended… or for that matter a Hindu, a Jew, or any non-Christian. After all, we are supposed to have a separation of church and state and be accepting and respectful to all religions. But to my knowledge no person of those faiths has been "horrorified" by the Christian message during inauguration (Although Atheists are demanding that the words "So help me God" be taken out of the inauguration oath. President Elect Obama has told Chief Justice Roberts he wants it to remain.)
In the interest of diversity, the inaugural stages of past have been shared by various faiths. In 1985 Ronald Reagan's clergy lineup included two Protestants ministers, a Jewish Rabbi and a Catholic priest. In 1957 Dwight D. Eisenhower included a protestant minister, a Jewish Rabbi and Catholicism's Edward Cardinal Mooney.
America's pastor, Billy Graham has been on the podium the most: He was at Richard Nixon's inauguration in 1969, George H. W. Bush's in 1989, and at both of Bill Clinton's inaugurations 1993 and 1997.
All the Christian ministers of past inaugurations were true to their faith, some even equally as true to the country's religious diversity. At George W. Bush's second inauguration in 2005, Rev. Dr. Luis León, Rector of St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, paraphrased words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:
"…members of a beloved community, loving our neighbors as ourselves so that all of us may more closely come to fulfill the promise of our founding fathers-one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all."
Then Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell's benediction ended the ceremony with:
"Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen".
To his credit Mr. Obama, has not only included Protestants, Catholics and Jews in his clergy lineup, but also a Muslim. Ingrid Mattson, is the first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America, and will say a prayer at the Inaugural Prayer Service. So this president is making a concerted effort towards religious diversity.
Yes, past prayers have been overwhelmingly Christian. But at last count the country was overwhelmingly "Christian", about 78 percent, according to Pew Forum's recent Religious Landscape Survey.
I talked to a friend of mine who is the leader of a lay-Bible study group, about the issue of whether Pastor Warren should pray "in Jesus name" or Christian specific language. My friend said if diversity truly lives up to its name, then no member of the clergy from any faith should be asked to water down their message.
Every clergy person's faith, no matter what that faith is, brings them strength and gives them hope. Faith also brought hope to the Founding Fathers… I don't recall any of them being horrified by that hope. All of them existed in a Christian worldview.
It's not that we have different philosophies about what is the Truth; it's that we can't let those differences force us to apologize for our own beliefs. We can agree to disagree. But we can still respect and treat each other honorably.
Is Islam the Truth? Is Judaism the Truth? Is the gospel of Jesus Christ the Truth? Is Secular Humanism the Truth? Decide for yourself. Then represent that Truth honorably.
Proverbs 1:7 probably says it best. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (KJV). By "The Lord" I mean whatever forms your belief system. And the word "Fear" translates to "reverence" or "Awe" or "obedience".
Basically it means that what you believe about God (whatever that god is for you) is the beginning of your wisdom, all your reasoning proceeds from there. If you are horrified by that belief in any way, I would suggest re-examining what it is you really believe in.