America, Prayer, Religion

Religion and Civility

Last summer, I received a request to offer a prayer of invocation and a benediction at a civic event. The VFW planned to dedicate a plaque in honor of town residents who died in World War II, as well as presenting pins and certificates to surviving veterans. I didn't have to think hard about it. I said "yes," and began planning prayers that would invoke the God I understand to have been called upon by our Founders in the Declaration of Independence, a Divine Providence not individualized to meet the needs of any one religious group or subset.

It always surprises me when other pastors seem unaware of this. When we stand in front of the public library to honor war veterans, we are Americans who happen to be Christians or not, rather than Christians who happen to be Americans. I have no trouble sorting this out, not at all. I have a sense of what it means to be American, one I'm proud of, even though some days (and some years and some presidencies) may have challenged it. I have a clear understanding of what I believe and also of how it differs from what you, or you, or you might believe. When I'm invited to pray at a civic event, I'm not there to convert you to my way of seeing Jesus or anything else. I'm there to invite something greater than any of us to be present among us as we take up matters of gravity or rejoicing to the larger community.

And so with great curiosity I have listened to the different pray-ers of the past few days. I have watched preachers struggle to keep their eyes down to pray, because they have this moment, only this moment, and they want to engage the crowd because as preachers they cannot help themselves.

I understand them. I am a preacher, after all, and a professional pray-er, too. But more than that I am a writer, and I believe that words matter. Words matter. My words for God, if they must exclude others by their very nature, are also by their very nature limited. And God is by God's very nature not limited at all. God means, to me, everything beyond our seeing, everything grounding our existence and everything outside our understanding. The details of our attempts to pull God closer sadly make the infinite measurable, because we demand it. We contract the Divine Source of All Love into an old man who tells us what to do and punishes us when we are bad and rewards us when we are good because such a system organizes otherwise disorganized forces known as human beings. We convince ourselves that those who succeed in this world must be in the Old Man's favor. We invoke Him the way some people might fondle a rabbit's foot.

Is it any wonder that sensible people, thoughtful people, cannot play that game with us?

In my family reside believers and questioners and one person who feels left out of the civic oratory whenever it invokes the Almighty. But today, the words of the President included him. The President, a believer himself, included those who differed from him not only economically, racially and socially, but theologically.

We're a long way from real respect for each other in America when it comes to religious beliefs. I found the inclusion of Rick Warren today very hard to take, and I cringed when he used The Lord's Prayer. That prayer belongs in church, or in gatherings of the faithful or even the seeking whose purpose is primarily religious. Today we stood at the door of a new national era and no sooner had it opened than the words of a prayer I value highly were used to close it against people of other faiths and people of no faith at all.

That was wrong of him. This is America, and we are free to believe and practice what we will, Rick Warren and I. But in the public forum, I believe faith leaders have a responsibility to be Americans first, to live out the creed of country first and faith second, in gratitude for the freedom to do otherwise all the other days of our lives.

35 thoughts on “Religion and Civility”

  1. Ahhh…but Rev. Joseph Lowery’s closing prayer was sublime.
    “We pray not only for our nation but the community of nations.” How I wish that would replace the recitation of “God Bless America” as the closing of so many of our officials’ speeches.
    And Joseph Lowery invoked a God with a sense of humor in his closing stanza. Such a refreshing endnote.
    And the Miami Herald has the text here:

  2. I appreciated his prayer, too, and loved his use of James Weldon Johnson at the beginning.

  3. Yes, thank goodness for Obama–my physical therapist expressed her appreciation for his honoring Americans of no faith today–and for +Gene Robinson (and Twelve Step programs) for
    “the God of our many understandings.” Though I frankly expected Warren to be worse–super Jesus-y–and was grateful for his nod to the other two Abrahamic religions, at least, in quoting the Shema and referring to God as compassionate and merciful.

  4. I tuned Warren out to the extent that I didn’t even realize he used the Lord’s Prayer until I saw it mentioned on blogs. I agree that it was inappropriate.
    Here’s a true story. When I was a high school senior, I was asked to pray at some award ceremony or other. I really worried about how to do it. I was raised in a tradition that taught that we had to close by saying “In Jesus’ name” but I knew that not everyone in the audience was a Christian, so I ended by saying “In your name, amen.”
    If a 17-year-old can figure out stuff like that, why can’t an adult clergyman?

  5. Oh, yes….I so totally agree…it was a sad moment – even though Warren was less bad than I anticipated (overall) he just blew it at the end…
    ….and then with Lowery…. it was a great moment….

  6. I agree that Warren was less bad than I expected. Actually, I thought he was doing all right until the end, when he invoked Jesus and said the Lord’s pryaer. I absolutely loved Pastor Lowery’s prayer and was incredulous when I read the text on Beliefnet and saw how many people were offended by his closing words!
    I mean.

  7. I too found that Warren wasn’t as bad as I expected, and like the inclusion of “most compassionate, most merciful” … but then the end came and I was staring at the tv with two of my colleagues from church and all three of us had our mouths hanging open in disbelief that he would do something like that. (sigh) Thank God for, oh, every other person involved in the inauguration, from Bishop Robinson to Obama to Lowery to the musicians, who opened the door Warren so handily slammed.

  8. I was having trouble with my feed and mostly missed Warren so I have no idea what he said before the Lord’s Prayer, but I was gobsmacked when he started in on that….but I guess I expected worse.
    But I thought +Gene Robinson and Joseph Lowry both hit it just right, and Lowry’s prayer was a perfect way to end the ceremony.

  9. “we are Americans who happen to be Christians or not, rather than Christians who happen to be Americans.”
    Not sure I agree with you here SB, but then I’m not an American.
    As Christians our first allegience is to the Kingdom of Heaven (also here on earth) of which we are citizens by virtue of our faith.
    Rick Warren was invited as a high profile Christian minister – he was not invited as defender of faithS but as a Christian voice.
    His prayer – the Lord’s prayer – is that God’s will would be done here on earth as in heaven – i.e. that the Kingdom of heaven would be seen here in earth – that includes working for justice and peace. What’s more the prayer reminds us all that God is about grace – He forgives us to the extent we are willing to forgive others – and given that Obama IS on a mission of peace and reconcilliation it’s a good reminder that we need to follow that way.
    Could Rick Warren have prayed all this in a different way? Yes of course. But I don’t slam him for chosing to do it this way – a prayer that no-one knows could easily have been like water off a duck’s back … this might have ruffled some feathers but personally I think Warren did it to unite Christians behind Obama (because so many were NOT in favour of his being elected in the first place) it was not to unite Christians AGAINST other faiths. To read that into that prayer is to do it injustice.
    but then as I said I’m not American 🙂 but I love it that Obama promises change for the better and not just for those of you who are citizens of the USofA but also for us in smaller nations across the world.
    May God bless your country and your president – and may God’s peace come to us all.

  10. Lorna, I think you *don’t* understand what it means to be American. Our country is built on Freedom of Religion, on Separation of Church and State, on an understanding that the government will not legislate our faith and that our faith will inform but not control our civic life.

  11. I so agree with you, SB. I had a similar experience to Ruth’s in high school, and approached it with the thought: How do I include everyone when my task is to pray on behalf of all who are represented there? I did NOT take it as my responsibility to use my faith’s prayer for everyone.
    I noticed that Obama did NOT join in the Lord’s Prayer then – at least did not move his lips – although that is doubtless a prayer well familiar to him.
    A civic, governmental event is not where that prayer belongs. Not in this country. Being this country, though, means that we have the right to pray that (or anything else we believe) on our own time.

  12. My admin asst. didn’t like the ending of Lowery’s prayer (yellow be mellow, etc.–she is asian and is offended by the yellow thing), and I agree that out of context, I would have found it corny and borderline offensive, but the thing is that by the time he got there, we were all enchanted by him, and let it go. I think, also, sometimes people whose lives are so amazing and who have quite a few years on them are given a pass for a few phrases that are a bit out of date. (but my 23 year old admin asst. disagrees…fair enough.)
    I thought Warren did a decent job–even phrasing the Jesus thing okay–the one who changed MY life—and then the Lord’s prayer. Argh. I heard a really great, really impassioned argument by a VERY liberal pastor for Warren’s inclusion, and so had agreed within myself that it was a fine decision….but then the Lord’s prayer.
    As a college chaplain, at least 50% of the public prayers I delivered were civic occasion prayers. It takes some getting used to, but it’s not rocket science. Maybe for the next inauguration, I’ll just volunteer!! 🙂

  13. Your reflection is so thoughtful, and echoes many of my own thoughts. I was much less articulate, but really dismayed with Rick Warren’s “performance.” I found the most hope in music and poetry, much to my surprise, but I am so thankful that those were there, when the invocation shut so many people out, and the benediction apparently had the same effect on many…sigh…thanks for writing this!

  14. The problem with public prayers at civic occasions is that the effort to make them inoffensive usually renders them vapid and meaningless and therefore often offensive to sincere believers. I suspect the private prayer service before the inauguration was a lot more meaningful than the public prayers on the dais.

  15. Hey there,
    Before I read this, I was kind of neutral about the Lords prayer (yeah, he’s an evangelical, so he’s just going to do what evangelicals do) and overall I was impressed with Warren’s prayer. But you helped me see it in a different light. Thank you!

  16. I hadn’t really thought about this, and I didn’t hear his prayer. I’m not at all surprised by his decision to use the Lord’s prayer. Although he may be lacking in tact and inclusiveness (which we all knew would be the case–most evangelicals of his stripe are not inclusive and feel if they don’t utter “Jesus” in there somewhere they have betrayed their integrity), I am grateful that no one tried to force him to say what he didn’t feel was right. That in itself is a wonderful thing and a hallmark of our belief in religious freedom. I’m also glad that his was not the only voice heard–I liked Gene Lowery’s prayer, although it didn’t feature as prominently as Warren’s.

  17. By the way, the closing part of the Rev. Lowery’s prayer was adapted from a blues song, “Git Back Blues” by Big Bill Broonzy. Tellin’ it like it was at the time it was written — “If you’re black, oh brother, git back, git back, git back.” I suspect some of the complainers didn’t know this.

  18. “I am grateful that no one tried to force him to say what he didn’t feel was right. That in itself is a wonderful thing and a hallmark of our belief in religious freedom.”
    Well said BadAlice … thanks

  19. Auntie Knickers, I’m glad you pointed that out. I knew that song from childhood, and got the allusion, but I am sure a lot of people didn’t.

  20. One more comment about Rev. Lowery’s prayer –I thought he closed it with phrases that were commonly used when he was active in the civil rights movement in the 50’s-60’s. I thought he had done that deliberately as a sort of “remember when” and “look how far we’ve come” moment in his prayer. I didn’t know about “Git Back Blues”.
    I appreciate your words on the whole subject, SB, as well as the comments.

  21. I heard Warren but not Lowery. If we really stuck to the separation of church and state, there should not have been any prayer at all. Since Obama invited Warren, I expected a prayer that fit his church tradition, and I heard pretty much what I expected.

  22. I was surprised that (a) Warren went on so long and (b) that the Lord’s Prayer was included. Force of habit? Request by someone he include it?
    I don’t know.
    I do know that there was much to celebrate yesterday. And if President Obama can be gracious and accepting of different stripes of preachers, so can I.
    Scritches to Molly…

  23. I’ve tried to stay out of this conversation because it’s highlighted the conflict within the church for me and I’m struggling with that in so many areas right now. However…I’m saddened by the use of terms and phrases like “those evangelicals” and “most evangelicals do this…” Even though “they” would (and do) claim that same title, it comes off…well you know. You may also claim to be “liberal” or “progressive” but if someone made statements about “those liberals” or blanket statements about how liberals “normally” do things (and it wouldn’t meant to be positive) then you might understand the sadness I feel right now. It’s actually a sadness in the pit of my stomach which I suspect might be somewhere close to my heart.

  24. Liz, thank you for your comment. This is an emotional topic for many of us. I’ve been stared at like a zoo animal by the husband of one of our college friends because I am an ordained woman and he is a Christian of a more conservative stripe, stared at and interrogated before a visit with his family. That made my heart hurt, too.
    I can let Juniper and Bad Alice, who made the references to evangelicals, answer for themselves if the check back in here. I can say I’ve heard the words “liberal” and “progressive” snarled in the same tone as “baby-killer,” so I take your point.
    I’m grateful that different views can be shared here and for a reminder that while I don’t like certain words used in certain ways (in my case and in this instance, The Lord’s Prayer), I would do well to be equally sensitive to other people’s thoughts and feelings. As I wrote about in my more recent post, this is one of the struggles for me of inclusion.

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