Digging for news in (some) inauguration rites and wrongs

Few paid much attention when a well-known liberal Episcopal priest, the Rev. Luis Leon, delivered the invocation at the 2005 inauguration of President George W. Bush, a somewhat traditional United Methodist.

The goal, apparently, was to have a range of religious leaders take part even if their own political and theological views did not match those of the president or his supporters. However, Leon -- drawing primarily from The Book of Common Prayer -- elected to offer a prayer that did not contain material that clashed with the views of the president. Perhaps the most quotable passage came at the end of his prayer, as he prayed on behalf of Bush and his team:

Endow their hearts with your spirit of wisdom that they may lead us in renewing the “ties of mutual respect which form our civic life.” Sustain them as they lead us to exercise our privileges and responsibilities as citizens and residents of this country that we may all work together to eliminate poverty and prejudice so “that peace may prevail with righteousness and justice with order.”

Strengthen their resolve as our nation seeks to serve you in this world that this good and generous country may be a blessing to the nations of the world. May they lead us to become, in the words of Martin Luther King, members of a beloved community, loving our neighbors as ourselves so that all of us may more closely come to fulfill the promise of our founding fathers-one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Of course, it made headlines when Leon -- a quick replacement for an evangelical forced out because of his defense long ago of Christian teachings that sexual acts outside of marriage are sin -- said the following during his benediction for President Barack Obama's second public inauguration rite.

We pray for your blessing because without it suspicion, despair and fear of those different from us will be our rule of life. But with your blessing, we can see each other created in your image, a unit of God’s grace, unprecedented, irrepeatable (sic) and irreplaceable.

We pray for your blessing because without it, we will see only what the eye can see. But with the blessing of your blessing we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor.

Obviously, some prayers are more newsworthy than others. I get that.

However, I was fascinated that the moral and theological content of the inauguration prayers were so closely parsed, while other religious events linked to the inauguration were given very little attention and ink.

I don't know about you, but I was fascinated with the lineup of speakers featured during the service earlier that morning at St. John's Episcopal Church, where Leon has long served as the rector.

Unless I have missed it, all we have to go on is the White House pool report about the event. Here are a few key snippets:

After another hymn ("O God, our help in ages past," sung by the full congregation), Pastor Joel Hunter delivered the opening prayer which included, "In your name we bless our president an Vice President and their families ... use this service to consecrate not only them but those they serve..." He specifically mentioned members of the armed services as well.

Next was the Old Testament reading by Dr. Cynthia Hale, senior pastor at Ray of Hope Christian Church in Decatur, GA (Joshua 1:1-9), followed by another hymn ("Praise to The Lord, the Almighty") and a reading of Psalm 139:1-13 by Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Next, the choir sang "Amazing Grace." Then, the Gospel Reading (Matthew 6:25-34) by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington.

Now that's a rather interesting piece of Gospel material there. But, oh, nevermind.

Now who preached that sermon?

That honor went to -- get this -- a well-known evangelical, the Rev. Andy Stanley.

Now, Stanley is the leader of the 33,000-member North Point Community Church chain that sprawls all over the Atlanta suburbs and, of course, is also known as the son of the famous Southern Baptist superstar Charles Stanley, a leader in the "biblical inerrancy" forces who gained control of America's largest non-Catholic flock in the late 1970s. Stanley the younger has made headlines in the past year or so with statements suggesting that -- like many other postmodern evangelicals -- he is trying to make his church more gay-friendly without directly condemning what centuries of Christian doctrine have said about human sexuality.

Thus, in the immaculately neutral words (cough, cough) of a CNN report:

He’s a conservative but he’s not a culture warrior in the pulpit. Most of his sermons revolve around personal growth, not politics. His church recently hosted a visit from first lady Michelle Obama even though some members grumbled. Stanley has even been accused of not condemning gay people enough.

So what did Andy Stanley have to say in this inauguration morning sermon? The pool report sketch includes:

Thanked POTUS for work after Newtown shooting tragedy when he spoke to mourners. Said POTUS should be called "Pastor in Chief." He set up the rest of the message with "What do you do, when you're the most important person in the room? You are the decision maker."

Told a story of Jesus moving from being most powerful in room to becoming a "servant," washing disciples' feet, mentioning Jesus touching "untouchable people." he added an aside: "For those of you who don't read the Bible, you should read it, even if you don't believe it." That elicited a very light chuckle from some in the crowd.

Said in Gospel of St. John Jesus washed disciple's feet and said, "Now that I, your Lord and teacher have washed your feet, you should also wash each other's feet."

The takeaway: What do you do when in a position of power? "You leverage that power for the benefit of other people in the room," he said. Added "Mr. President, you have an awfully big room. Prayed that POTUS would "continue to leverage this influence for the sake of our nation and the sake of the world."

So this is part of what Stanley had to say. It's interesting, in this case, that (a) the content of this much more diverse service received so little press scrutiny and (b) that an evangelical was chosen to preach, in light of the debates about other prayers and messages in the inauguration calendar. I realize that events on larger national stages are inherently more newsworthy than smaller events. I also know that some subjects are more controversial and, thus, newsworthy to the secular press.

Let me give you another example, drawn from the current civil-religion holy season here in Beltway land.

The sermon in the interfaith inaugural worship service was preached by an interesting United Methodist leader, the Rev. Adam Hamilton. His past, and his actual text, received a glimmer of attention in a Washington Post news report:

“To many Americans, we feel like a house divided that cannot stand. We find ourselves divided and desperately longing to find common ground,” the Rev. Adam Hamilton, leader of a 16,000-member Methodist church in Kansas, said in his sermon to Obama and 2,200 invited guests at the inaugural prayer service at Washington National Cathedral. “This may be, this bringing together of our country, a more important issue than anything else we face.” ...

Hamilton, the Methodist minister from Kansas, seemed made for this time, this president; he has written on embracing “the gray” area and calls himself a “passionate centrist.” His sermon was a plea for the shaping of some shared priorities, ideally -- to his mind -- ones revolving around “a deep and abiding faith in God.” It tried to forge U.S. history to scriptural history, weaving the story of Moses seeking freedom for Hebrew slaves with the poem on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free ...”) and with the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hamilton leads one of the biggest mainline Protestant churches in the nation, but in his sermon he noted that America’s pews are filled with deeply divided people.

Many “congregations often don’t know why they exist, nor do they have a compelling picture of the future that unifies them. Sadly, this feels true of America today,” he said.

Once again, this service included a wide array of people from various traditions -- with the Post being careful to note those who have openly advocated gay rights. However, in this setting, it was -- apparently -- not necessary to note who had not taken that doctrinal lunge. So what about Hamilton's take on the doctrinal issue of the day?

Silence. Luckily, there are people in newsrooms like Religion News Service that dig into those kinds of details. Hamilton, like Andy Stanley, is not so much pro-gay as he is anti-anti-gay. So far he has not directly condemned Christian tradition on these matters, yet he has also be careful not to affirm traditional Christian doctrines either.

Apparently, that means you can preach and pray in some settings. But would that approach have met the tougher press scrutiny test used to determine who can take part in the actual inauguration? This appears to be the standard. What happens in church stays in church. What happens in the inauguration -- these days -- must fit a particular doctrinal and political grid. It it clearly fits, it might be news. If it doesn't fit, then it's really news.

Ask the Rev. Louie Giglio, who has gone out of his way to be vague in the evangelical present, but not vague enough in the evangelical past.

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