A lot of ink and air time has lately been given over to discussion of whether or not Rev. Rick Warren should or should not give the invocation at President-Elect Barack Obama’s inauguration next week. Supporters of same-sex marriage (who are also supporters of Barack Obama) cite the influential minister’s vocal support for a California ban on such unions as reason enough for him not to be a part of the inauguration of the first African-American president. Celebrating one triumph of civil rights, they argue, by giving air time to a person who opposes giving civil rights to gays and lesbians is hypocrisy. Defenders of Warren giving the prayer (even those who do not agree with his position on same-sex marriage), point out that it is an example of the next president’s promises to build bridges between people that disagree on sensitive political issues. After all, it was Warren who invited Obama to speak at a conference on the AIDS crisis given by his church, even though many conservative Christians condemned the minister for allowing a “pro-choice” politician to participate. Is it right or wrong for Warren to give this prayer at the inauguration?
Before I answer that question, let me offer my own thoughts on Rick Warren in general. On the one hand, I respect Rick Warren greatly for some of his actions. When his book The Purpose-Driven Life became a runaway bestseller, Warren gave away 90% of the money he made from it and then paid back his church every penny they ever paid him in salary and THEN began taking no salary at all. (I don’t believe any other wealthy megachurch pastor has done anything similar to this.) Also, despite his own conservative beliefs about sexuality, Warren has led the way in getting evangelicals to take on the world AIDS crisis, especially in Africa, in the face of criticism by other conservative Christian leaders.
On the other hand, I don’t share Warren’s understanding of scriptural authority and I find his theology shallow in a number of areas. For example, recent press accounts detail how his church’s counseling ministry does not consider physical abuse as grounds for divorce based upon instructions about divorce found in scripture. Such an understanding may be true to the letter of the law, but it misses entirely the lived reality of thousands of women, many of whom face life-and-death situations. The same disregard of grace is evident, I believe, in Warren’s opposition to same-sex marriage. Furthermore, I find suspect Warren’s courting of the press and politicians, such as at the Saddleback Forum where McCain and Obama answered Warren’s questions in a televised debate. It is not the job of the church or its ministers to play kingmaker, and I believe even the best Christian in the world could not help but be seduced by the temptations of fame and power. A minister with that much fame and power seems to lack the humility modeled by the one who took the form of a slave and suffered death on a cross.
All that being said, I don’t really have a problem with Warren saying a prayer at the inauguration; we Americans have to find a way to bridge the culture wars in order to address our culture’s great problems. That means by necessity, people that do not agree must work together. Rick Warren can have a place on the program for all I care, which brings me to what I do have a problem with—I HAVE A PROBLEM WITH PRAYERS AT PRESIDENTIAL INNAUGURATIONS!
Yes, since the founding of our republic, public prayer has been a part of significant public and government events, but the question is: should they be? Scholars of religion call this type of public religiosity “Civil Religion” which means that it serves a public function for the occasion but it has little to do with what I (and I think Rick Warren) would call true religion—namely a person’s relationship with God. In an increasingly pluralistic nation, we as Americans are forced to consider again the wisdom of our founders who having left behind a continent riven for centuries by religious wars and state churches chose not to have a state religion. Granted, in their minds, they were most likely thinking of different branches of Christendom rather than the interaction of world religions, but the principle remains the same: in order to protect the rights of all to worship as they please government should keep its mitts of religion.
As a Christian, a quick glance at today’s headlines as well as a cursory study of world history reveals that whenever the church and the government have colluded for the sake of power, corruption and idolatry have robbed the church of its true mission—to live out the love of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, if I, as a Christian, take seriously Christ’s call to love my neighbor, then I should consider how a Muslim or Hindu neighbor might feel when the name of Jesus Christ is invoked at a presidential inauguration. On the one hand it is just a prayer; on the other hand, it is a prayer that does not include them, just as a prayer to Krishna would not include me.
Finally, I believe prayers like the one Warren will offer—and for that matter, like the prayer that will be offered at the end of the inauguration by a hero of mine, civil rights leader Joseph Lowery—are robbed of their power. Can a prayer offered as a part of a political event of this magnitude be both sincere and prophetic? I’m not so sure. I believe all Christians should pray for their leaders regardless of their party just as I believe Christians should be involved in the public process, but I believe we must do so with fear and trembling, lest we become ensnared by the idols of partisan politics and cultural ideology. Above all, our allegiance must remain to Christ first, even before that of our nation.
Grace and Peace,