Barack Obama's inauguration events will include prayers by an openly gay bishop, and a globetrotting evangelical preacher who actively campaigned against gay marriage. The prayer service for Obama at the National Cathedral in Washington DC will involve the first female president of the Islamic society of North America (who happens to be a white convert from Canada) and rabbis representing each of the three main branches of Judaism – leaders of communities currently at odds with each other over Israel's assault on Gaza.
Obama seems intent on using the opportunity of his inauguration to highlight the fact that America is amongst the most religiously complex societies on the planet, a unique combination of diversity and devotion.
But diversity isn't inherently a good thing. As Harvard's Robert Putnam recently pointed out, the more diverse a city is, the less social capital (sense of belonging, levels of volunteerism, feelings of trust, etc) it has. And as societies ranging from Iraq to Afghanistan stubbornly insist on illustrating, one possible outcome of diversity is civil war.
As much as anything else, Obama relishes the role of bridgebuilder in a diverse society. I can see him whispering in the ear of the evangelical preacher Rick Warren, after the swearing-in ceremony where he is giving the invocation, that he really should sit down with the gay episcopal bishop, Eugene Robinson, while they're in DC together. "You guys have to work out what it means for all Americans to have equal rights with religious views about traditional marriage. Send me a memo when you have a way forward."
And he might tell ISNA president Ingrid Mattson and the three Rabbis backstage at the cathedral, "Listen, my administration is going to do its part in addressing the political dimensions of the Middle East conflict, but American Muslims and Jews have to play their role in modelling cooperative relations with each other over here, even during times of conflict over there."
People often attribute Obama's bridgebuilding skills to his mixed-race background, claiming that negotiating the too-often separate worlds of black and white made him want to create purple. But I think there's another important source to Obama's vision for bringing people together: Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago, where Obama first came to the Christian faith, and where he attended church for many years.
By now, Trinity's image in the public imagination is well-established. People think of it as a den of black radicalism with a fiery preacher who exhorts his followers to hate America. To call that a caricature would be a severe understatement.
The real message of Trinity – the one that Obama is carrying with him to Washington – is that faith is more about what happens outside the church than inside it. And outside is a world of people who are tragically separated from each other. Faith is about bringing those people together, bridging those isolated communities. Holiness is about wholeness. God hates separation.
When Obama was recently asked whether he missed having a spiritual community (by the prominent Washington journalist George Stephanopoulos, the son of a Greek Orthodox priest), his answer was less about his personal faith life and more about the different and separate worlds of Washington DC. There are two cities in DC, Obama observed, one for the well-heeled people who work in and around the government, and the other one for everyone else. Obama wants those two cities more involved with each other.
Just as he wants Jews and Muslims, Israelis and Palestinians, folks who are pro-gay marriage and folks who are anti-gay marriage, more involved with each other.
The inauguration is magnetic enough common ground for everyone to come, no matter how deep your differences are with the person you're standing next to. Obama's challenge for the next few years is going to be to convince separated communities to find common ground themselves, and if they can't find it, to build it.
That is a task worthy of the title president, and Christian.