Wednesday, December 31, 2008

More Controversy Surrounding Rick Warren's Inauguration Prayer

First the issue was the fact that Warren, a staunch opponent to gay rights, was even chosen at all. See here. Now, at issue, is whether he will refer to this first-century Jewish dude from Nazareth, whom some people worship as the Son of God and the second person of the Trinity.

From the Associated Press:

Warren's inauguration prayer could draw more ire
By RACHEL ZOLL, AP Religion Writer Rachel Zoll, Ap Religion Writer
Tue Dec 30, 9:35 pm ET

President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation drew one kind of protest. Whether the evangelical pastor offers the prayer in the name of Jesus may draw another. At George W. Bush's 2001 swearing-in, the Revs. Franklin Graham and Kirbyjon Caldwell were criticized for invoking Christ. The distinctly Christian reference at a national civic event offended some, and even prompted a lawsuit.

Warren did not answer directly when asked whether he would dedicate his prayer to Jesus. In a statement Tuesday to The Associated Press, Warren would say only that, "I'm a Christian pastor so I will pray the only kind of prayer I know how to pray."

"Prayers are not to be sermons, speeches, position statements nor political posturing. They are humble, personal appeals to God," Warren wrote. His spokesman would not elaborate.

Evangelicals generally expect their clergymen to use Jesus' name whenever and wherever they lead prayer. Many conservative Christians say cultural sensitivity goes way too far if it requires religious leaders to hide their beliefs.

"If Rick Warren does not pray in Jesus' name, some folks are going to be very disappointed," Caldwell said in a recent phone interview. "Since he's evangelical, his own tribe, if you will, will have some angst if he does not do that."

Advocates for gay rights protested Obama's decision to give Warren a prominent role at the swearing-in. The California megachurch founder supported Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in his home state. Obama defended his choice, saying he wanted the event to reflect diverse views and insisting he remains a "fierce advocate" of equal rights for gays.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist who is considered the dean of the civil rights movement, said he hasn't yet written the benediction for the Jan. 20 ceremony. But he said "whatever religion the person represents, I think he has a right to be true to his religion."

Caldwell, also a Methodist, said no one from the Bush team told him what to say in his 2001 and 2005 benedictions.

The Houston pastor said he had "no intention whatsoever of offending" people when he quoted from Philippians and delivered the 2001 prayer "in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ." In 2005, he still prayed in Jesus' name, but added the line, "respecting persons of all faiths." In the 2008 election, Caldwell supported Obama.

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, who was a presence at presidential inaugurations for several decades, said it's wrong to expect members of any faith to change how they pray in public.

"For a Christian, especially for an evangelical pastor, the Bible teaches us that we are to pray in the name of Jesus Christ. How can a minister pray any other way?" Franklin Graham said. "If you don't want someone to pray in Jesus' name, don't invite an evangelical minister."

Graham, who in 2001 stepped in for his ailing father, ended the invocation with, "We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit."

The lawsuit, which claimed that inaugural prayer was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion, failed in federal court. It had been filed by atheist Michael Newdow, who separately sued to remove the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance.

Billy Graham, now 90, didn't say Jesus' name during presidential inaugurations, but made obvious references to Christ.

At Richard Nixon's 1969 swearing-in, Graham prayed "in the Name of the Prince of Peace who shed His blood on the Cross that men might have eternal life." In 1997, for Bill Clinton's inaugural, Graham prayed "in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."

Leaders of other traditions with experience in interfaith work said they respected Christians who felt strongly that they should pray in Christ's name.

But they argued that a request for some modification is reasonable for a presidential inauguration, considering it's an event representing all Americans.

Imam Yahya Hendi, a Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University who travels to Muslim countries on behalf of the State Department, said that at interfaith events, he refers to Allah, or God, as "almighty creator of us all."

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, said he invokes "God" for interfaith prayer.

"I know that for Christians, Jesus is part of their Trinity," said Visotzky, who has taught at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and at Protestant seminaries in the U.S. "For me as a Jew, hearing the name of a first-century rabbi isn't the worst thing in the world, but it's not my God."

I think Burt Vizotsky has a mature attitude here: why should he be offended by other people practicing their religion? It is just not his God. In an interfaith setting, one should not efface one's identity to some lowest common denominator, but let every identity stand out and dialogue with one another. Each retains one's own religious identity, yet, at the same time, is sensitive to others' beliefs, practices, and traditions. So, what is the right thing to do? Is it better in this national setting to be vague and therefore represent "all Americans," as if that were even possible. Or is it more "American" to just be yourself, retain your individuality in the face of opposition? I personally do not care if Warren invokes Jesus, if an imam invokes Allah and in a national prayer speaks of the "seal of the prophets." I don't care if a Catholic refers to Pope Benedict XVI or if a Tibetan refers to "His Holiness the Dalai Lama." I don't care if a Jew refers to "Ha-Shem." While we're at it, why not have someone invoke Vishnu. I don't care if an atheist invokes...nothing! Let them all just be themselves, and not try to make others into their own image. This is not just an issue of "liberal hypersensitivity" and over-political correctness, as it seems to be billed. I am very liberal, but I am neither particularly sensitive nor politically correct (I have this strange belief that everyone should be offended from time to time in their most cherished value--whether religious, political, etc.--utopia for me is everyone offending everyone else; equality is everyone making fun of everyone else equally). No, because if we had a Hindu give the opening invocation, the fear would be on the other side, that Siva or Vishnu or Krishna may be invoked! No, this is an infection that seems to affect all sides. It would be best, perhaps, if we had as many different groups as possible invoke their deity or deities or non-deity to reflect the broad marketplace of religious options in the U.S. The problem is that we do not have enough time for them all to invoke these things at the inauguration. Yet the other problem is that if we pressure Warren to reflect all Americans by being vague, he'll end up reflecting no one. I can ultimately see both sides of the issue, but I think Polonius in Hamlet was right, "To thine own self be true." Just as I would hate for a Hindu to give in to pressure not to invoke his deity or deities, the same holds true for Warren.

Also, perhaps a bit of clarification on the last point in the article about a "first-century rabbi": Burt Visotzky wrote an article on the development on the term "Rabbi" and came to an interesting conclusion--that the earliest document to refer to someone as a "rabbi" in terms of "teacher" (rather than its etymological sense of "great one") is the New Testament in reference to Jesus. Interesting thing for the rabbinic movement (out of which all modern forms of Judaism really derive) that the earliest document to use this terminology is the Christian scriptures in regard to Jesus. By the way, I took a class with Visotzky on Midrash.


David E. S. Stein said...

If the person giving an invocation were to conclude, “In Jesus’ name I pray,” then I (a Jew) would have no problem. As you assert, we each have a (moral) right to our own religion.

However, the typical Christian pastor instead says, “In Jesus’ name we pray.” That is very different, because it claims that I (as a participant) agree with offering such a prayer in that manner. But I do not agree.

The problem is not “Jesus” but rather the “we.” “In Jesus’ name we pray” negates the (moral) right to our own religion, with regard to all participants in the event. That is what I find objectionable. And based upon the grounds of your argument, I imagine that you would object, too.

Jared Calaway said...

Thanks for raising this point. I had not actually thought of it, since I was focusing so much on the name itself.

I personally have difficulty imagining a Christian minister saying, "in Jesus' name I pray." Perhaps I just lack imagination, but it seems a bit more awkward. Maybe that is just the consequence of having heard it with "we" so many times. Another variation is "In your name we pray," which for Christians is still implicitly "Jesus," but a phrase that can be taken much more broadly and that would make much of this conversation moot.

Based upon the concept of dialogue of differences rather than dissolution of differences, yes, I agree that your point would be a corrolary to my argument, although approaching it from a different direction.

One thing I meant to mention in the posting and just forgot was that as a Christian, Warren has a way out of this mess. That "out" is Paul. If Warren in some way uses Paul as a model for himself, as many/most evangelical Christians do, he has the "out" of "being all things to all people." This Protean quality, if he pays attention to this part, would allow him to stay true to his own religious identity without inclusively effacing religious variety, or, in your terminology, negating the moral right of the participants to their own religions.