Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

More Ire to Come?

Part 1 of series: Rick Warren, the Obama Inauguration, and Praying in Jesus’ Name
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A recent AP news story featured this headline: “Warren’s inauguration prayer could draw more ire.” The implied, earlier ire came when President-elect Barack Obama chose Rick Warren to give the invocation at the inauguration. In the eyes of many, Warren is downright evil for his support of California’s Proposition 8, which upheld traditional marriage between one man and one woman. Thus Obama was slammed by many of his fellow liberals for choosing Warren to give the invocation. Warren himself was pilloried as a bigot, a hate-monger, a homophobe, and you-name-it. Of course he also caught heat from the right-wingers who were upset that he was blessing the inauguration of the liberal Barack Obama. (Photo: Obama and Warren at Saddleback church)
An aside: Now it’s time for the conservatives to be mad at Obama, who chose none other than the openly gay Episcopal bishop, Gene Robinson, to give an invocation at an opening inauguration event. One can only wonder what Robinson will pray, and to whom he’ll address his prayers. In response to the Warren selection, Robinson had said, “I’m all for Rick Warren being at the table. But we’re not talking about a discussion; we’re talking about putting someone up front and center at what will be the most watched inauguration in history, and asking his blessing on the nation. And the God that he’s praying to is not the God that I know.” Once he was invited to share in the inauguration, however, Robinson changed his tune. Now he says, “What it means for the nation is that Barack Obama is who he told us he was and intends to be, which is a person who unites us,” Robinson said. “The fact Rick Warren and I are each giving invocations during inauguration festivities just shows that the new president means to include all Americans.” Yes, including Christian pastors who pray to different Gods, apparently. But the now included Robinson is okay with that, I guess.
At any rate, the “more ire” predicted in the AP story has to do, not with Rick Warren’s views on homosexuality, but rather with his way of praying. Specifically, there’s a growing brouhaha over the question of whether or not Warren will pray “in Jesus’ name” at the end of his invocation. Many theologically conservative Christians expect Warren to end his prayer by saying something like “in Jesus’ name.” If he doesn’t, they’ll be quite miffed. On the other end of the spectrum, others will be upset if Warren mentions the house-dividing name of Jesus in his prayer, or otherwise points to Jesus in so many words. They see such public prayers as needing to be inclusive. For example, the forementioned Bishop Robinson said about his inaugural prayer: “I will be careful not to be especially Christian in my prayer. This is a prayer for the whole nation.”
So far, Rick Warren has not said whether he will use “in the name of Jesus” or some circumlocution, like “in the name of the famous guy from Nazareth.” He has been circumspect, even cagy. When asked about whether he’d pray in the name of Jesus, Warren said, “”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.” Well, that’s certainly true, to a point. But when prayers are uttered in front of the world at presidential inaugurations, they are in some sense sermons, speeches, position statements, and political posturing, don’t you think? Even if, in the end, Rick Warren’s prayer is a genuine prayer, his own heart’s communication with God, surely Warren is well aware that his prayer is more than just a “humble, personal appeal to God.”
Of course on the issue saying “in Jesus’ name,” Warren can’t win. No matter what he does, millions of people will be upset. And the press will, no doubt, be sure to interview a majority of those who are upset with Warren for whatever choice he makes. If we’re lucky, they may interview Joseph Lowery, the 87-year-old African American Methodist pastor who will be giving the benediction at Obama’s inauguration. Lowery, who is well known for his leadership in the civil rights movement, said “whatever religion the person represents, I think he has a right to be true to his religion.”
I want to weigh in on this conversation, to offer some thoughts about praying in civic settings like inaugurations, and some theological observations about praying in Jesus’ name. I’ll tell you what I would do if I were in Rick Warren’s position, and why. Then, I want to take a couple of days and focus on some of the past inauguration prayers by none other than Billy Graham. It will be interesting to see what Graham did when he prayed at inaugurations, which he did several times.

  • Thomas Buck

    There is a sort of challenge that’s been thrown down to Rick Warren as an assumed representative of conservative Christians. Had there been no controversy, perhaps not praying “in Jesus name” at the end wouldn’t have mattered to many of us conservatives. But now, I’d like to see him stand, while so many are in his face, and say the words, not to be antagonistic, but as a humble, public, appeal for the health of this country to the Lord God Almighty in the name of our Lord and Savior.

  • Ray

    Does all of the public pandering really matter? I’d be much more interested in seeing the new President geniunely express his own faith. I don’t really care who he puts on a stage to represent this or that constituency, or to appease the squeaky wheel of the day.

  • Neil

    #2, I think the new president has expressed his faith quite clearly. It is in himself. He has mocked authentic Christianity and the Bible at every turn.
    Robinson left his wife and children to be with his gay lover, and the Episcopals punished him by promoting him to Bishop. What a travesty that he was in the pulpit to begin with. That anyone would consider him a “man of God” shows how far we’ve sunk.
    I’m not a big Warren fan but obviously think more of him than I do anyone else Obama associates with. Hopefully he’ll realize this is a chance to do the right thing and not give some wimpy social gospel message, but the real Gospel.
    Asking forgiveness for our countries abortion policies would be a nice bonus ;-).

  • Charlie

    This whole saga is a sad commentary on how little, real progress our country has made in the area of “tolerance”. Ultimately, it seems that none of this is about Rick Warren or Gene Robinson, but about Jesus Christ. He is indeed the “scandalon”, the stone that so many have, and continue to stumble over.
    “Yes, you who trust him recognize the honor God has given him. But for those who reject him,…He is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall.” 1 Peter 2

  • Bill Goff

    I plan to join the throngs of people on the Mall at the historic inaguration of Barack Obama. (I do not have a ticket to the inaguration, but I have a ticket to fly to the Capitol where I will stay with my son who lives in Arligton. He is a captain in the Maryland Army Reserve and has been called to active duty starting January 17th for “inaguration support”.) I am confident that Rick Warren will use the name Jesus in his prayer. Why? Because I was present in the congregation last Sunday when I heard him assure us that that is what he intends to do. He also mentioned that he will be preaching at the former church of Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 19th, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday. He is the first white person invited to do this. I have not noticed that this has been picked up by the news.
    I see Barack Obama as a bridge builder, not a wall builder. As Pastor Warren has recently written, wall builders do not like bridge builders.

  • Dan

    WWJD? I think a good case can be made from the NT that not only would Jesus refuse to get anywhere near politics, he would be the last person that Obama, or any other politician (on any side of the aisle), would even dream of asking to offer an inaugural prayer.

  • Jennie

    Boy, if this isn’t ever a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” There is a tradition in the US of having a Christian pastor provide a prayer for the country. I think bringing two prominent and respected pastors (in their own worlds) is a pretty good compromise. Gene Robinson and Rick Warren both have their own human stuff and no one can recommend any guy to pray at the innaguration who doesn’t. But, Obama has been consistent. He’s bringing “everyone to the table.” In this category of “Christian Pray-er at the Innaguration” he’s bringing representatives from two sides in that category. I hope Pastor Warren does pray in “Jesus name,” because that’s what he does! And if everyone is brought to the table, they should respectfully be able to do what they do!
    I disagree that Jesus wouldn’t be asked. If Jesus were the prominent and respected religious leader of today (in person and able to fly to Washington DC), I believe Obama would choose him.
    “Public pandering” (maybe in a less cynical form) IS important. This is a nation of a lot of different kinds of people with a lot of different beliefs. That’s the country this President is about to swear to lead. I think that Obama’s record of listening and even HEARING from conservatives, liberals, Christians, Muslims, etc, will go a long way in helping him serve a country that is not one way or the other.

  • Mariam

    Well, yes! Mark, I remember you did run a series on praying in Jesus’ name. It was provocative and interesting.

  • Mark Roberts

    Wow. Great comments. I must say that I do admire Obama’s courage in this matter. Some might say foolhardiness. He is obviously not playing to the middle, but trying to pull the sides together. I wonder if he’ll get tired of this strategy later in his term, or second term. I sure couldn’t take the criticism from all sides that is inherent in the presidency, not matter what the issue, but especially in an issue such as this one. Anyway, thanks for your fascinating comments and dialogue. This is an important conversation.

  • Andy

    #3, Neil: Robinson did not “leave his wife and children to be with his gay lover.” The two men met after his divorce was made final. It may be a small distinction, and it does nothing to change the moral status of his relationship, but it’s unfair to tar him with adultery.
    As for the President-Elect’s leadership style, it’s either genius, or a disaster in the making. Doris Kearns Goodwin really should be getting some kind of royalty from this.

  • Bill Goff

    Mark, I agree that you provoked some thoughtful comments. While I disagree with the conclusions of #6, I think he raises some important questions. How do we use our understanding of what Jesus did to determine what we should do? I have some initial thoughts: Surely we must look at Jesus’ life and teaching in the social and political context in which he lived. He was not a citizen of a representative democracy, but part of a small country under the dominance of the oppressive, cruel, Roman Empire [which sponsored no prayer breakfasts]. Yet if we define politics as the art and/or science of government, it seems to me he was powerfully involved in politics. Was not Jesus’ main message “Change, for the government of God is near” (my translation)? Did he not have both a conservative (a tax collecting collaborator with Rome) and a liberal (a “zealot” advocating the violent overthrow of Rome) within his 12-member “cabinet”? Did Jesus not characterize a contemporary politician as a “fox”? Didn’t Jesus make some rather shrewd statements about paying taxes?
    I would enjoy a blog series on how we can extrapolate from Jesus’ life to guide our decisions. WWJD is a HQTA (hard question to answer)!

  • Mark Roberts

    Dan and Bill: Yes, the WWJD question is relevant and tricky. Jesus surely went places that were scandalous, hanging out with tax collectors (!) and sinners. One might argue from this that he belongs with politicians in Washington. (Sorry, that’s pretty cynical.) But, seriously though, this is worth some serious thought. Perhaps I should blog on this sometimes. That’s a good suggestion.

  • Steve

    Enjoyed the topic and comments. Just a couple of my own to add. The first is that as a Christian, when I pray, am I not praying in Jesus name? Is the phrase “in Jesus name” absolutely necessary for my prayer to be legitimate. I think it is a good reminder but it seems to me it has become sort of a prayer sign off for a lot of people. The second thing is that I remember watching Billy Graham at a one of the President’s memorial services. Every living president and a lot of world leaders were present. Billy’s message was all about Jesus and he prayed in Jesus name as well.

  • Ray
    Oops. Forget all the theology we mistakenly thought we knew. We’ve got to add another sacrament now.

  • Ray

    The link in #14 above no longer connects to the article I was referencing. No matter…just a lame attempt at levity.

  • Should Rick Warren Say “In the Name of Jesus” at the End of His Inaugural Prayer? |

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