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.