God bless America

>> Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Yesterday's Slate features a nice little survey of the religious festivities surrounding President-Elect Barack Obama's inauguration on the 20th titled "God Bless, and Bless, and Bless, and Bless America--How many preachers does one inauguration need? Not too surprisingly, they blow the answer to the question raised beneath the title, but they do at least provide the information that four more have been scheduled than is Constitutionally necessary and who they are and what they've been up to.

Regular readers shouldn't be surprised that I think the answer to "How many preachers does it take to screw in a lightbulb swear in a President?" ought to be zero. But it's also something I've sort of tried not to think about too much: after all, I recognize that the overwhelming majority of Americans are some kind of religious, however poorly informed or defined in many cases, and that atheists and agnostics have less of a chance of being elected Governor, much less President, than, say, a pedophile terrorist whose chief hobbies are crack cocaine and fighting pit bulls. Okay, that's an exaggeration. But not by much. But the reality, anyway, is that notwithstanding the efforts of a bunch of grandstanding A/As,1 the inauguration will include lots and lots of prayer and blessing and invoking of a deity (and do you have to ask which one?). So I try not to think about it.2

What is sort of interesting, if utterly unsurprising, is that the Slate piece doesn't seem to notice that what's really missing from the lineup isn't atheists,3 but any kind of real ecumenical breadth and depth whatsoever. Okay, so we have four different Christian denominations represented by four different kinds of Christians, and only one of them has implied he'll give a specifically Christian prayer (oh come on, you didn't really have to click that link to guess which one I'm referring to, did you?), while two others (much to their credit) have said they'll try to be non-denominational. Nonetheless, one doesn't see a Rabbi, or an Imam or a Lama or brahmin Priest on the list, much less a representative of Wicca or Vodun or something really outré on the list. One has to wonder what the reaction would be if the Invocation were to be given by a witch. (I'm thinking the reaction on the Christian right would probably look a lot like this. How do we get one for 2012?)

How does anybody say the whole project isn't exclusionary?

Of course, most of the controversy about the invocation has surrounded Rick Warren, who might not be a homophobe even if he frequently waddles and quacks like one when he's not paddling around in the pond or flying south for the winter or getting into disputes with rabbits over what's in season.4

The Slate piece has a nice link, to this blog entry at American Prospect, which is particularly relevant because it turns out that Rev. Warren (who's giving the invocation) has previously gone against Bishop Gene Robinson, who's giving the opening prayer. Bishop Robinson, who seems like a pretty cool dude for a cleric,5 is the openly-gay Episcopalian Bishop who triggered a schism in the American Episcopalian church when he came out and said God told him to. When that occurred, a number of Episcopalian churches attempted to splinter away from the main church, which naturally caused a problem insofar as their church buildings were owned by the national Episcopalian church and these schismatics were no longer members of that larger church, so their continued use of the facilities would have been, what's the word? Oh, yes: theft.6

Anyway, Rev. Warren was very helpful in the anti-gay-bishop-Episcopalians'7 time of crisis, offering up Saddleback Church's facilities to the bigots. This meta-quote from American Prospect probably sums it up better than I could:

Warren, says Jim Naughton, the canon for communications and advancement of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, "is owning up to the fact that he has a relationship with people who are, by anybody's calculus, bigoted toward homosexuals." The breakaway congregations represent a small minority of Episcopalians in the United States, but they work with a global network of anti-gay churches to "keep an atmosphere of crisis boiling." Using "the guise of orthodoxy, people are laying claim to material resources," Naughton added.

Well, indeedy.

I'd like to agree with Rev. Randall Balmer, who told The New York Times that he thought it would be a mistake to lump Warren in with James Dobson or Chuck Colson; Warren clearly isn't the worst of the worst, indeed when compared to Fred Phelps, Warren comes off as the totally awesomest guy in the universe--if you were stuck on a desert island with these two guys, a gun, and only one bullet, the choice would be obvious.8 On the other hand, Warren himself has characterized his differences with James Dobson as being a matter of "tone," and not substance.

I would like to be fair. Warren's position on the environment (that Christians should actively defend it, including work to halt or reverse anthropogenic global warming) is in the best tradition of organized faith. His positions on gay rights have, admittedly, swung off the usual magnetic north of religious conservatism: he's floated support of some kind of same-sex civil union while nonetheless comparing homosexuality to incest and supporting California's Proposition 8. His views of the role of the church in combating poverty are both noble and terrifying: while he believes in combating poverty issues, particularly in the Third World, and addressing hunger and disease, his tool for doing so sounds an awful like the missionary philosophy of earlier centuries: bring them to the church and teach them to improve their lots as good Christians.

But I just cannot like what I see of the man. There's still his uneasy relationship with capital-R Reason. His disbelief in evolution and (mostly) literal take on the Bible, while typical of his faith, aren't views I have much respect for. I don't completely trust the man--I can't really tell if his views on issues that directly harm my friends and members of my family are evolving or if he just attempts to express them in a fashion more palatable to the mainstream press while giving the usual spiel to religious homophobes and offering the use of his church to bigots.

Not that it matters one whit. He's giving the invocation. It's a done deal. I'd rather there was no invocation, or that the invocation was done by somebody truly ecumenical, perhaps even an ecumenical blessing by somebody who wasn't even the usual Christian, but any angst over the matter profits me nothing, unless you count becoming even angstier as something of a profit.

I don't.

And that (I think) is everything I have to say about the Inaugural Parade O' (Christian) Faith.

1Note to Michael Newdow: you're not actually helping.

2Which is maybe sort of chickenshit on my part, I admit, but there's only so much you can grieve over.

3What would we do if we were invited, anyway? Put up some kind of crappy, half-assed sign? No wonder we never get invited to the really good parties.

4Except that Sam Harris bears less resemblance to Bugs Bunny than he does to a douchebag. In fact, I thought about linking to the "debate" between Harris and Warren and calling it "Battle Of The Douchebags" or "When Douchebags Attack," but then the Bugs riff came into my head. Consider Harris v. Warren to be a little like Bugs' and Daffy's classic "Duck Season/Rabbit Season!" debate on a loop that never actually resolves with Elmer Fudd shooting anybody. (And don't you wish Elmer would just shoot 'em both and pay the fine to Fish And Wildlife for whichever one was wrong?)

Harris sometimes says reasonable things, but believe it or not Warren sometimes sounds reasonable, too. Newsweek's HvW-SMACKDOWN! isn't a totally terrible read insofar as you can see that Harris and Warren sometimes sound surprisingly like thoughtful, intelligent, informed individuals, but then they also occasionally spice things up by sounding like Sam Harris and Rick Warren instead, so it's kind of like a roundtable discussion featuring four people, two of whom are possibly retarded drug addicts.

Harris, in case you're unfamiliar, has defended torture and parapsychology while making attacks on religion that are sometimes completely justified and other times off-the-hook and at least as bad as the attacks on atheism and agnosticism he's supposedly repudiating. (Let's face it: if you're going to say something as inflammatory as claiming religion is the source of all evil in the world while attempting to marginalize religion's positive contributions to civilization, you're no better than the idiot who tries to blame Nazism or Stalinism on rampant atheism. Is it really any surprise that the Harris-Warren cage match features both men engaging in that ahistorical and dishonorable tactic?)

5He's one of the two religious guests at the ceremonies who has said he will try to be non-denominational. His comments, which are quoted in the American Prospect piece linked to, are worth repeating here:

"While that is a holy and sacred text to me, it is not for many Americans," Robinson said. "I will be careful not to be especially Christian in my prayer. This is a prayer for the whole nation."

6Okay, so that's not really the word. The real word is "trespassing," with a lengthy and unnoticed trespass eventually leading to "adverse possession." But "theft" just rolls off the tongue and page so much more smoothly, no?

7They really need a new name, don't they? Might I suggest "assholarians"? What? Just trying to be helpful. Sheesh.



Random Michelle K Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 1:30:00 PM EST  


Unless I'm crazy, the only thing mandated by the constitution regarding the inauguration is:

Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following Oath or Affirmation:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."


Yes, we have tradition (TRADITION!), but it seems to me that a President could have any type of inauguration they wanted, and additionally, could swear the oath on any type of book they want, yes?

So the inauguration simply a party thrown by the President so the people can help him celebrate his oath of office. He can have as much or as little pomp and circumstance as he wants or the situation warrants. (http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/pihtml/pi052.html

So isn't this an "it's my party and I'll cry if I want to" kind of situation? The president can do whatever he pleased (and oh how it would please me to one day write "she" there) and although tradition remains a guide, that's all it truly is. A guide.

So what we're really discussing is whether we like the choices that Obama has personally made regarding his inauguration.

I know we're for certain going to disagree here, but I believe that if someone's faith is important to them, there is no problem with a display of that faith, assuming, of course, 'an it harm none.'

I'm actually quite curious about what in each individual's beliefs speaks to Obama? Has he had a relationship with any of these individuals that helped him in the past? What is Michelle Obama's feeling about these individuals?

Of course, we're not going to learn these answers any time soon, because it's his inauguration and he can do as he pleases.

Essentially, my worries tend to be religion in schools and churches receiving federal money for evangelism.

Janiece Murphy Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 1:52:00 PM EST  

I assume "A/A" stands for "Atheist Asshole." Because really, it fits.

And may I suggest a cage match between ole Ricky and the Reverand Ed Bacon?

I'm betting on Ed. He looks considerably more fit (in every sense of the word).

Good post, Eric, thanks.

Jeri Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 3:21:00 PM EST  

Eric, you used FOOTNOTES. That means this was a rigorous, scientifical analysis of the issue, suitable for peer-review and/or framing.

It will be very interesting to observe the body language between Warren and Robinson on the podium - if indeed they must mingle. I'm betting on stiff and icy.

Eric Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 3:40:00 PM EST  

Michelle, you raise a good point. After I posted this, I ran across a worthwhile piece in Newsweek that points out that the "tradition" of religious folks at the inauguration only goes back to FDR, but picked up steam in the 1950s during the "we're not godless commies dammit!" era that also saw the introduction of God to the Pledge Of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" as a motto.

(It's worth mentioning, too, that Eisenhower, who really entrenched the practice as a tradition, included a Rabbi and Greek Orthodox Priest in the ceremony; a bit more inclusive, in my book.)

I think your analysis is valid up to a point--in one sense it is the President's party and he can invite who he wants. The problem, though, is that it's also the nation's ceremony, and that's where I think your analysis starts to fail. Supposing that a hypothetical President-Elect wanted his inauguration to celebrate White Pride? (Considering the personal beliefs of Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and recorded statements of one Richard M. Nixon in his office, this hypothetical might not be as extreme as it seems on first blush.) I could go on with the noxious examples, postulating an improbably-elected President who celebrates any and every form of bigotry you can imagine, but you get the idea: we wouldn't tolerate it for one second, but we tolerate infecting our civic ceremonies with exclusionary religious practices because we're used to it, because, yes, it's traditional to have religious figures at our sporting events and school ceremonies and town-commissioner swearing-ins and anouncements that court has started and stopped.

I'm certainly not going so far as to say the President shouldn't be able to have whatever private ceremonies and celebrations he sees fit--he wants to invite his pastor over to pray over the inaugural dinner, I guess that's okay. But I am pointing out that at the national ceremony, choosing to have religious figures present and participating does have the potential to send a message of exclusion to the People--especially when the person giving the Invocation plans on "praying the only way [he] knows how." (It's worth repeating again that Bishop Robinson and Pastor Watkins have, in contrast to Rev. Warren, publicly pledged to be careful in their prayers to reach out to everybody possible; obviously they're not reaching out to me and my ilk, but I do recognize and laud the fact they're going to try to include non-Christians in their prayers, making their blessings at least a little more diverse and American.)

There's no way to make everybody happy, but that's the real point behind the Separation Clause of the First Amendment. Even in the early days of the Republic, when the population was much more homogenous than it is today, there was sufficient diversity and the memories of Europe's sectarian wars still fresh enough for the Founders to effectively say, "We can't include everybody, so we'll exclude everyone equally." Indeed, it would be no more appopriate for a President to say "God is a myth and if Jesus lived he was just some guy who said cool things," than it is for the President to make his faith a public thing; I'd like to think I'd be as offended if the President made a publicly atheistic statement as I've sometimes been by open pronouncements of faith. (I concede that I, too, may turn out to be a hypocritical douchebag in the unlikely event such a thing happens in my lifetime, but I'd like to think not.)

This is the nation's event, not just President Obama's.

Postscript-wise and just to clarify for other readers (I suspect Michelle knows this but typed quickly), an oath is always made upon a religious basis (so a book, if used, would have to be the holy text of the oath-taker's faith), while an affirmation is made upon honor and no book or text would be used in the ceremony at all.

John the Scientist Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 3:42:00 PM EST  

OK, Obama, Muslim cleric at the Inauguration, you didn't really write those two things in the same sentence did you? o.O

Second, Jeri beat me to it.

Third, Obama's a Christian, so he can be exclusive if he wants. :p

The first President who can invite Wiccans and Muslims to give blessings at the Inauguration will have impeccable Protestant credentials, let me tell you. :p

Eric Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 3:53:00 PM EST  

Oddly, John, I didn't write "Obama" and "Muslim cleric" (or "Obama" and "Imam") in the same sentence. ;-)

You're probably right that the first President to have a Wiccan or Muslim at an inauguration will have impeccable Christian creds. Actually, I think it's far more likely that the whole Invocation would be dropped from the ceremonies before you'd see a really outré sect appear for the blessings, and I don't think we're talking about a tradition that's going anywhere anytime soon, however young it might really be.

Regarding the exclusivity, see my response to Michelle--the swearing-in of the President belongs to the People as much as it belongs to the President-Elect, maybe more. It's his personal achievement, yes. But it's our pinnacle of civic culture and triumph of representative republican democracy over monarchism (or, one wishes, theocracy).

But, like I said (and Michelle said it too): it's a done deal, so there's no sense in my kvetching about it too much.

rbird Wednesday, January 14, 2009 at 2:26:00 PM EST  

To say that Rick Warren isn't that bad of a homophobe is like saying that Heidegger wasn't that bad of a Nazi or Trent Lott isn't that much of a racist. Warren supported Prop 8, denying the GLBT community basic civil rights in the state of California. He has likened homosexuality to pedophilia and beastiality, and it was only in December of 2008 that he removed homophobic language from his church's website-- probably only after he was prodded to do so.

I'm totally with you on the whole religious aspect of the inauguration. Interestingly, it's not in the constitution that the Pres gets sworn in on a bible, but George Washington's staff thought it would be a neat idea. The story goes that nobody in his staff actually owned a bible (including Washington himself) and they had to scrounge around to find one to borrow.

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