Remember when President-elect Barack Obama picked the Rev. Rick Warren to deliver an invocation and all hell broke loose? The rioting and the pillaging and swastika-painting and what not? I couldn't begin to quantify how many stories I've read on the pick and its response in the gay community. Well, yesterday the Obama team announced the pick of an extremely controversial clergyman -- just ask the Anglican Communion! or high school students! -- to lead the prayer at the kickoff to the inaugural festivities: Bishop Gene Robinson. (I myself am more excited about the performances of Beyonce and Mary J. Blige at the same event, but, alas, there's no religious angle to discuss with their picks.)
I'm sure we'll be hearing all about the angry throngs of Christianists, marching in the streets to protest this selection. Just kidding. USA Today worked so hard to find a livid response to the pick that it went all the way down its speed dial to Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League. I think this McClatchy report on the conservative response was a bit more accurate, if less dramatic. The Concord Monitor broke the story about its local bishop.
What I find interesting about the coverage of both of these civil religion picks is how everything focuses on the response in the gay community. When Warren was picked, almost every report focused on the response in the gay community -- with a small allowance for a review of offensive things that Warren had said. When Robinson was picked, the early coverage all focused -- again -- on the response in the gay community.
I'm not saying that this is bad news sense but it is certainly interesting to think about whether either case reflects an accurate overview of the response of the average person who cares about the topic.
Laurie Goodstein at the New York Times had a very thorough report. I am always impressed with how much information she packs into her stories. Maybe she also has some very tight editing there, too. Anyway, here's a snippet with some actual theological content:
Bishop Robinson said he had been reading inaugural prayers through history and was "horrified" at how "specifically and aggressively Christian they were."
"I am very clear," he said, "that this will not be a Christian prayer, and I won't be quoting Scripture or anything like that. The texts that I hold as sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer."
I actually think we will see stories in coming days about whether it's offensive or odd or what not for a Christian bishop to go out of his way to avoid quoting Scripture and it will be interesting to compare those stories with the ones about the scandal of a Christian clergyman praying a Christian prayer.
I also absolutely loved Steven Waldman's Beliefnet blog post that picked up on something completely different than most coverage:
Something else likely to get lost amidst the yelling: these three, plus the other inaugural speaker, Rev. Joseph Lowery, are all Protestants.
The last nine people to pray at inaugurations have been Protestant. But before the 1990s, Presidents typically made a point of including a Catholic and, often, a Jew. (Click here for my new archive of all the inaugural prayers)
Ronald Reagan's 1985 inaugural included his personal pastor Rev. Donn Moomaw, but also Rev. Timothy S. Healy, a Catholic and Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk, president, Hebrew Union College. . . .
Even back in 1949, when it was a much more Protestant nation than now, they mixed it up. Harry Truman's inaugural included a protestant (Rev. Edward Hughes Pruden), a Jew (Rabbi Samuel Thurman of St. Louis) and a Catholic (Father Patick A. O'Boyle). . . .
Now that Protestants make up only 50% of the population they get 100% of the inaugural speakers. Politically, this is particularly odd given the importance of the Catholic vote to Obama.
I suspect the Obama folks got so tangled up in the culture war politics -- balancing on gay rights, gender and race issues -- that they forgot, or downplayed, old fashioned religious base-covering.
Normally I enjoy Christopher Beam's quick little backgrounders on issues of the day in Slate but he kind of swung and missed this one about inaugural blessings. For one thing, he acts like having four clergy involved in inaugural festivities is some kind of Godfest when, as Waldman could have pointed out to him, it's actually typical. He also spreads something untrue about Warren's feelings about divorce and generally paints a comically one-dimensional portrait of clergy, doctrine and religion in general. It's just . . . not a very good piece. I do, however, think it's a good example of how it's human nature to demonize those with whom we disagree. Normally, like I said, Beam is better than this. I'm also somewhat annoyed because I see so many more theologically interesting angles to pursue for criticism of Warren and everybody just keeps focusing on the sacred creeds and commandments of politics. It's so boring and predictable.
A few other things -- this Seattle Post-Intelligencer report about an upcoming visit by Robinson is nicely balanced. Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today asks some good civil religion questions. The Washington Times has some interesting historical perspective on benedictions. The Politico offers an example of how it thinks everything is about politics (Hint to political reporters: Warren and Robinson don't actually decline many high-profile invitations). And Dan Gilgoff at U.S. News & World Report says that whether or not the symbolic gestures are divided, his sources say that the political spoils won't be.