Part 6 of series: Rick Warren, the Obama Inauguration, and Praying in Jesus’ Name
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Yesterday I laid out the strongest case I could make against having Rick Warren say “in Jesus’ name” at the end of his inaugural prayer. Today I’m arguing the other side.
If you read this before 11:30 a.m. Easter time, then you won’t know what Warren actually did. If you read it afterwards, you may very well know how he prayed. The suspense will be over. Nevertheless, I want to reflect upon this issue because it’s important. The question of how Christians pray in civic gatherings – or whether they should or not – is part of the much larger conversation about the role of religion in America’s public square. If you’ve been following the furor surrounding Warren’s involvement in the Obama inauguration, you know this conversation is lively, sometimes even downright nasty. For Christians, we need to answer two crucial questions:
1. As American citizens, how should we properly speak of and live out our faith in our pluralistic society?
2. As citizens of God’s kingdom, how should we properly speak of and live out our faith in this pluralistic society?
Though both of these are the same question, the answers may be quite different. One will be based on issues of law and culture. The other will depend on biblical and theological interpretation. In the end, of course, each American Christian needs to answer both questions satisfactorily. At any rate, let’s get back to the issue at hand.
The Case for Saying “In Jesus’ Name” at the End of Rick Warren’s Inaugural Prayer
First of all, let me address this question as a Christian. One of our highest callings and greatest privileges is to glorify Jesus. Christians want people to know about him and to be drawn to him. Of course many people are not especially pleased by this desire. It’s popular these days to be not just non-Christian, but anti-Christian. Nevertheless, Christians are committed to letting folks know about Jesus. If a Christian had the opportunity to use the name of Jesus in a prayer that would be heard by millions, perhaps even billions of people, one might consider this a valuable opportunity to fulfill our Christian calling. (It would be rather like painting “John 3:16” under your eyes when you lead your college football team to the national championship, as did Florida quarterback Tim Tebow a couple of weeks ago.)
But if we think about this issue, not from a Christian perspective, but in light of American culture. Given the diversity of our society today, and given the wide range of religious beliefs, how could it be a positive thing for a Christian to say “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a prayer? Wouldn’t something more generic be helpful in the public square? Might one want to pray, as did the Episcopal bishop, Rev. Gene Robinson, in an inaugural event, to “O God of our many understandings”? (No joke.)
One of the things I value most about this country is our heritage of religious freedom. One of the greatest things about the United States of America is that people are free to practice the religion of their choice, within generous boundaries. One could not sacrifice another human being to the gods. But one could certainly say “in Jesus’ name” at the end of a public prayer. To do this, even when not everyone in America could say “Amen,” would be a celebration of our freedom as well as our diversity as a nation. I’m quite sure the multitude of other prayer givers during the long Obama inauguration, including a Hindu, a Jew, a Muslim, and a wide variety of Christians, will pray according to their convictions and traditions. Though I might not pray to Allah myself, I’m blessed to be in a country where a Muslim can do this in freedom and without fear. Equally, I’m blessed to live in a country where an evangelical Christian can say “in Jesus’ name” at the end of his public prayer.
Some folks seem to prefer a lowest common denominator approach to public expressions of faith. That’s what I’d call praying to the “God of our many understandings.” But I think our civic life is enriched by the genuine diversity of our convictions and traditions. I don’t mine if a Muslim prays to Allah, or a Hindu to Krishna, because that’s what they really do, and I want to be exposed to their genuine religious faith and practice.
Of course we can exercise our personal faith in public in a way that’s offensive. But I think this isn’t necessary. In his 2001 prayer at the Bush inaugural, Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell (who is African American, and now an Obama supporter), ended this way: “We respectfully submit this humble prayer in the name that’s above all other names, Jesus, the Christ. Let all who agree say, ‘Amen.'” Understandably, he caught some heat for praying this way. More recently, in a civic gathering, Rev. Caldwell closed, “Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.” Surely anyone who would be offended by that closing would be offended by just about any prayer in a public gathering.
So, I think our country is richer and better if people of faith can exercise their faith in public as well as private. If Rick Warren usually prays in Jesus’ name, then America is better off if he says this in the inauguration.
So What Would I Do?
Now that I’ve put forward my best arguments against and for using the phrase “in Jesus’ name” in the inaugural prayer, I should explain what I would do. At least that was my intent. But, after thinking about this for several days, I must admit that I’m less clear than I was before. I’ll tell you why.
Given the fact that praying in Jesus’ name, from a biblical point of view, does not require one to say “in Jesus’ name,” and given the fact that an inaugural prayer is meant to include a wide range of people, not just Christians of a certain stripe, and given the sensitivity many people feel over the name of Jesus, owing, in part, to terrible things Christians have done using his name, I was planning to admit that I would not use the name of Jesus if I were in Rick Warren’s shoes. In an effort to imitate Jesus’ own outreach to those who were on the edges, and who were surely not especially religious, I would not say “in Jesus’ name” to close my prayer. At least that’s what I thought I would do.
But the more I’ve reflected upon my last point about what makes America wonderful, I’m reconsidering my position. I’m not doing this for Christian reasons so much as more American ones, if you will. I would rather live in a nation where people were free to be honest about their beliefs, and even to express them openly in a public forum, than in a nation where we all had to pretend that we all worshiped the “God of our many understandings.”
So, as of this moment, if I were in Rick Warren’s shoes (which, by the way, I hope I never will be; I couldn’t take the heat), I would say something like “in Jesus’ name” at the end of my prayer. But I wouldn’t just do this. Rather, in advance of the inauguration, I would take the time to explain what it means to pray in the name of Jesus (as I have done in this blog series) and why I think America is better if people live out their faith with authenticity. I would acknowledge that not everyone in America could echo the “in Jesus’ name” part of my prayer. So I would not say, “we pray in the name of Jesus” but “I pray in the name of Jesus.” Among other things, that would simply be a statement of fact. I might very well be inclined to borrow the recent line of Kirbyjon Cladwell, “Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.”
I do reserve the right, however, to change my mind again.