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Washington – When President Obama rose to speak between the prayers offered by evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren and civil rights veteran Joseph Lowery, he indicated — without ever saying a word — the breadth of the religious outreach ahead in his administration.
Though Warren’s prayer contained touches of inclusivity, it was nonetheless explicitly and solidly Christian, ending with the Lord’s Prayer. Meanwhile, when Lowery, a United Methodist, closed the swearing-in ceremony, he remarked on the rainbow of races and religions Obama will represent as president.
“Keep in mind Rick Warren prayed while George Bush was still president,” noted the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, professor of African-American studies at Colby College in Maine. “It’s an interesting ushering out of one era and ushering in of a new era.”
In the weeks leading up to the moment when all three men stepped to the august Capitol podium, Obama’s selection of Warren, particularly, had been the subject of debate. Yet in the end, the symbolism of the prayer givers may endure longer than the particular prayers either of them said.
Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University, said the new president’s choices for who offered the invocation and benediction at his swearing-in might give a glimpse of his plans.
“If the inauguration is any indication … he’s going to keep one foot planted firmly within the African-American church and perhaps venture, at least make some feints, in the direction of the evangelicals,” Balmer said.
Despite the pre-inaugural brouhaha over the Warren pick, the megachurch pastor and best-selling author simultaneously reflected his evangelical beliefs — praying in the name of Jesus, in multiple languages — and the compassionate voice of Obama.
“Warren comes in as this divisive figure … but at the same time, I think he emphasized things like compassion, mercy, love to everyone,”
said John Fea, a historian of American religious culture at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. “Those sort of general … compassion themes are the kinds of things that Obama has been pushing.”
In addition, Obama’s reaching out to Warren — and the minister’s acceptance of the invitation — might indicate a potential warming of relations between the White House and conservative Christians.
“In so many evangelical circles, the word `liberal’ is a dirty word and here was a conservative Protestant blessing a liberal,” said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.
When you add the fact that Obama invited openly gay Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson to the mix by having him pray at the inaugural kick-off concert on Sunday, that only expands the expectations for the new president’s religious outreach.
“With just the triad of Gene Robinson and Lowery and Rick Warren, that’s a very powerful signal to American Protestants — still more than half of the population — that Obama doesn’t want religious division to get in the way of `being’ America,” said Diana Butler Bass, an expert on American religion and author of “Christianity for the Rest of Us.”
“He put together liberal Protestants, evangelical Protestants and African-American Protestants. It’s a clear signal of no more religious division. This is not a place where we’re going to put up with theological disputes messing up the vision of extending the hand of compassion to our brothers and sisters here in the United States and around the world.”
Martin Marty, professor emeritus at University of Chicago Divinity School, said Lowery — and almost anyone — could have easily filled the gap between Warren on the right and Robinson on the left.
“Once you’ve had those two in there, you can smuggle almost anyone else in between them,” Marty said. “Once you’ve done that, you’ve got a lot more room to breathe.”
But the Lowery pick was quite intentional — symbolically harkening back to the civil rights era that helped Obama become the first African-American president, and pointing the nation ahead to a new era of inclusion and justice, observers say.
“Clearly (Obama) doesn’t talk the same narrative as the old guard of the civil rights movement, but at the same time, he deeply appreciates that generation of leaders,” said William Turner Jr., an associate professor of Duke University Divinity School and a civil rights veteran.
Lowery’s prayer was so broad that even a secularist could embrace it — and did.
“He didn’t say this prayer was for Jesus or Allah or any other god, he said let all who embrace justice say amen,” said Lori Lipman Brown, director of the Secular Coalition of America. “I hardly ever say amen, but how could you not say amen to embracing justice?”
By Adelle M. Banks and Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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