Monday, January 26, 2009

Small Sips - Inaugural Religiosity

To Include or To Not Include? - Commenters over at Internet Monk are being asked to compare and contrast the prayers given by Gene Robinson and Rick Warren during inauguration festivities. Depending on who you ask, Robinson addressing the "God of our many understandings" was the best or worst thing for a Christian minister to say. Also, depending on who you ask, Warren praying explicitly in Jesus' name and then trying to lead everyone in the Lord's Prayer was the best or worst thing for a Christian minister to say.

People at Internet Monk in particular are jumping on the "God of many understandings" line, and their argument has plenty of merit. Robinson was attempting to be pluralistic that day, recognizing that we're not a nation solely full of Christians by any means, and this was his attempt to acknowledge that. Besides the expected offense taken that a Christian would dare acknowledge other faiths, commenters are suggesting that such a line may actually be offensive to other faiths because it minimizes their witness as much as it does that of Christians.

I recently shared with a Bible study group that there are two ways to be pluralistic. First, there is the way with integrity, where you and the person sit down to acknowledge your differences, ask questions, challenge each other, and are still able to work alongside each other in common causes. In other words, you don't let up on the conviction that you find truth in your own faith even as you honor and respect the faith of the other.

The second method of pluralism is the gooey way: attempting to dismiss or glaze over differences; whittling down our unique beliefs into one dull stump of niceness. I can certainly see how Robinson's line falls into this latter category, and I'd agree.

And then there's Warren, who is praised by many for being unashamedly Christian in his prayer. If you're invited even to a multi-religious, multi-cultural gathering such as the American presidential inauguration, you're still a Christian pastor and thus you should pray like a Christian pastor. If the criticism of Robinson is that he was overreaching in trying to be inclusive, then the praise for Warren is that he didn't bother to make an attempt since he's a Christian to begin with.

I have a problem with this, too. It really comes from wondering about religion's place on a national stage like that at all, but so long as we're here, there was a way for Warren to acknowledge God without slipping into the sort of language that Robinson used. Of course, that there was or is a prayer at all excludes atheists (and Buddhists, non-theists that they are).

So it's really just a lose-lose situation. Unless, of course, you believe that everyone in the U.S. should just be Christian and avoid the hassle.

Did Lowery blow it? - If you were quick enough, you saw that I'd posted the text of Joseph Lowery's benediction for a half day or so. I loved his Biblical allusions, especially his update of a text from Isaiah where he mentioned turning tanks into tractors.

Some, however, have dismissed Lowery's entire contribution because of a line at the end. If you recall, Lowery started into a little rhyme scheme where he mentioned a few different races, ending with "where whites will embrace what is right." This has drawn accusations that it was a swipe at white people, many of whom had just helped elect the nation's first black president.

When I posted the benediction here, it was after I myself bristled at that line. But I was willing to overlook it because of everything else that he had said. I was willing to see it not as a broad-brush painting of all white people as still being incredibly closed-minded and racist, but as an acknowledgment that a sizable chunk of the white population was not watching these festivities with joy and excitement, and solely because Obama is black. Obama's election did not automatically bring peace and harmony among the races - it was a huge step in overcoming hatred and the racial glass ceiling, but there are plenty of folks still needing to embrace what is right.

All the same, I took down the benediction, willing to see the point of view of those who saw the line as a slap in the face (and, again, I did bristle at it myself). I probably shouldn't have, and maybe I'll repost it. More importantly, I think that it's important for the nation to realize that electing a non-white president hasn't solved all our race problems. It has perhaps solved the white monopoly on the presidency, but there are plenty of other racial issues for our country to work through.