Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Gene Robinson, Gay Episcopal Priest, Will Give an Inaugural Prayer

The presidential inauguration will be a 4 day event that includes a day of community service on Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The kick-off is this Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial: a “We are One” ceremony.  And the invocation for that event will be given by Gene Robinson, the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson, who is married legally to his partner under NH law, is the first openly gay Episcopal bishop (and, therefore, a lightning rod of controversy for the global Anglican communion of which the Episcopal Church, USA is a part).  Robinson will also attend the inauguration itself on Tues.  I hope God’s providence, if not any human agents, seat him next to Rev. Rick Warren, the anti-gay mega-church pastor who will stiill be giving the inauguration ceremony’s invocation.  I do know that a gay couple will be seated on the dais near Warren, so maybe Obama’s attempt to be inclusive is NOT just pandering to the Religious Right.

Other clergy involved include:  Reverend Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will preach the sermon on the National Day of Prayer service held at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday 21 January, the day after the inauguration.  This service is unofficial,  but traditional since the days of George Washington.

The benediction at the end of Tuesday’s swearing -in ceremony will be delivered by Rev.  Dr.  Joseph E. Lowry, a black United Methodist minister and a giant of the Civil Rights movement (who is also a champion of gay rights in both church and society).

Also an atheist group has sued to keep all religious references out of the oath/affirmation of office itself.  The Constitution prescribes an oath or affirmation (for those with religious objections to swearing oaths) with certain words–and no reference to God is included. But, at the first inauguration, Pres. George Washington spontaneously added, “So help me God.” The tradition of concluding these words has stuck–so much so that many Americans believe they are part of the oath of  office itself.  The Supreme Cout A U.S. District Court ruled that it was up to Obama whether or not to include these words. Nothing in the Constitution either demands or prohibits them. Well, Obama has asked Chief Justice Roberts to include them, so that’s that.

(My objection is to Christians taking oaths at all, in direct opposition to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. I think just substituting the word “affirm,” is semantics: It’s still an oath, still more than simply “yes” or “no.” But that’s just one reason why I will never be president! One of many!)

I still would not have given Rick Warren so prominent a role in the inauguration.  But I like the fact that Obama is trying to get past the culture wars.  A less divided country while we face so many problems would surely be helpful.

But why only Christian clergy?  Ours is a very diverse and pluralistic culture.  The whole world will be watching this event (far more than with most U.S. political events!) and showcasing rabbis (e.g. Rabbi Michael Lerner, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, or Rabbi Lynne Gottlieb–all active in promoting Middle East peace), imams or other Islamic clerics (e.g., Rabia Terri Harris; Chaplain Bilal Ansai of the Muslim Chaplains Association); Buddhist clerics, etc.  Even within the Christian faith, the clergy represented are all Protestant.  I would think showcasing Catholic and/or Orthodox priests or heirarchs would be very desirable.

More diverse a portrait than the world has seen for the last 8 years? Definitely.  Enough diversity represented for the world context we face? Definitely not.

January 12, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. The truly sad thing is how each of these ministers becomes little, leashed puppies of the state in their participation at this level. I don’t understand how any minister of the gospel could give an invocation, etc., without pronouncing curses along with blessings (just guessing none of them will, of course).

    I think just leaving religion out of it would be best for our very diverse and pluralistic culture.

    Comment by Chris Donato | January 12, 2009

  2. Obama has the right to choose whom he pleases as far as clergy is concerned, but even that will be politicized ad nauseum. And Lord save us from political correctness. Why not a Bahai or a Jain? 🙂

    Comment by Paul | January 12, 2009

  3. A Jain would be interesting, given the towering moral/ethical standards that faith sets for its followers, but not representative of either the stated goals of the Obama administration or of the contradicts with which it must contend.
    Obama’s selection of Robinson and Watkins is true to commitments he had during the campaign and with Warren and Lowry gives us fair representation of the central issues of faith with regard to the ongoing political debate.
    It strikes me as fitting and signal accomplishment for the first black president to bring to fore with him a woman clerical leader and a homosexual clerical leader.
    Those decisions would have done other fledgling presidencies considerable harm but will in overarching effect, I think, add to his standing.

    Comment by baptistplanet | January 12, 2009

  4. Michael,

    I skimmed through the Newdow suit last night. I don’t know if you were aware of this but the second plaintiff listed on that suit (right below Newdow) is Ellery Schempp; the same Ellery Schempp from the historic 1963 decision Abington School District v. Schempp which declared school-sponsored devotional Bible reading to be unconstitutional. Schempp is now a respected physicist who remains quite active in strict separationist church-state circles.

    Comment by Big Daddy Weave | January 12, 2009

  5. Interesting, Aaron. I agree with the court on Abingdon v. Schemp, but the attempt to force presidents to refuse to mention God in inauguration seems to be a violation of free exercise to me. For once, Roberts gets it right. (Did I really write that?)

    Chris, I don’t think the mere participation in a civil ceremony of national importance automatically makes a cleric into a puppet for the government or to a particular politician or party. Consider the prophets who would participate in anointing kings of Israel and Judah, but had zero problems with sounding out God’s thunder when they later committed idolatry or oppressed the people (which the prophets saw as intertwined).

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 13, 2009

  6. “…the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson, who married his partner in CA during the brief legality of same-sex marriages in CA…”

    Gene Robinson was married to his partner of over 20 years in New Hampshire, one state where same-gender marriages are legal, NOT in California.

    Comment by Carl Hendrickson | January 13, 2009

  7. Thanks for the correction, Carl. I’ll correct the record.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | January 14, 2009

  8. […] public hears about two other ministers that will be a part of the shindig next week, Gene Robinson and Sharon Watkins.  What does this mean?  Just how smart is […]

    Pingback by Why Obama is way too smart to be president. | Homebrewed Christianity | January 14, 2009

  9. […] public hears about two other ministers that will be a part of the shindig next week, Gene Robinson and Sharon Watkins. What does this mean? Just how smart is […]

    Pingback by Homebrewed Christianity » engaging politics » Why Obama is too smart to be President | January 14, 2009

  10. “The Supreme Court ruled that it was up to Obama whether or not to include these words”

    I’m not aware of such a ruling. The SC has not to my knowledge addressed this issue a such.

    I also find your “affirmation” issue of interest. I think “so help me God” is redundant in respect to the word “swear,” since the word itself suggests you are swearing to God. But, “affirm” as in “affirmative” is to me a way of saying “yes.”

    The NY Post recently had an op-ed noting that only Protestant clergy were involved. So, it is not just a matter of “Christians.” Given the faith (or lack of) of Obama’s own parents and stepfather, I find this a bit ironic as well as troubling.


    Comment by Joe | January 15, 2009

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