Mixed feelings met the announcement that Barack Obama had chosen Pastor Rick Warren to lead the prayer at his inauguration (see here at The Catholic Thing for example). People said then that it was to keep favour with the Evangelicals.
Now, from the other side of the fence, Obama has chosen Bishop Gene Robinson to give the invocation at a welcoming concert at the Lincoln Memorial (see the report here in today’s edition of The Age). This time we are told that
The choice of Bishop Robinson to preside at Monday’s Lincoln Memorial event is a clear effort to reassure the gay community, which strongly backed both the Obama and Clinton campaigns.
Well, from one point of view, that could be seen as a vote both ways. It does, however, clearly leave orthodox Christianity of all stripes out in the cold.
Pastor Warren, author of “The Purpose Driven Church” and founder of the Saddleback Church (see Wiki here for details), may be representative of the new evangelical “Church Growth” movement in the States, but his Christianity is harly orthodox. In fact, indirectly he may be seen as one of the reasons I am Catholic today. His kind of theology was making real inroads into the LCA in the 1990s – and continues to do so from what I can see. It is a theology that is big on the Great Commission but thin on ecclesiology and sacramental theology. Even traditional orthodox evangelicals have their reservations.
Nevertheless, if there was one area in which most traditional, orthodox Christians could go along with Pastor Warren, it was in the area of morality, as evidenced by his staunch opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
But now the choice of Gene Robinson to pray the invocation at the concert shows (as we all knew) that Warren was chosen for the Inauguration despite these views, not because of them. Can it truly be, however, that the evangelical lobby in the States is smaller than the gay lobby? Or is it a case of the gay lobby being more influential? Can Obama keep company with both sides of the equation?
This is how Bishop Robinson interprets Obama’s choice:
“It is an indication of the new president’s commitment to being president of all the people,” Bishop Robinson said. “It will be my great honour to be there representing the Episcopal Church, the people of New Hampshire and all of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.”
But it is not just Robinson’s moral theology which is questionable – his orthodoxy on all other points of Christian dogma is just as (if not more) wobbly. Here is how he plans to form his invocation:
“I am very clear that this will not be a Christian prayer, and I won’t be quoting scripture or anything like that,” he said. “The texts that I hold as sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer.” Bishop Robinson said he might address the prayer to “the God of our many understandings”, language that he said he learned from the 12-step program he attended for his alcohol addiction.
I have absolutely no idea what texts Bishop Robinson might imagine are “sacred for all Americans”. One expects simply that if a Christian clergyman is invited to pray a prayer in a public setting this is because he is a Christian clergyman. Surely the Episcopal Church has “set piece” prayers for such occasions that would hardly be offensive to anyone, but are still within the bounds of what one might legitimately call “Christian”? One presumes that if the president-elect wanted something else, he could have invited a rabbi and an imam and a buddhist monk to join the nominated Christian cleric?
From one point of view, there could perhaps not have been two figures in American Christianity more divisive than Rick Warren and Gene Robinson. Neither can be seen as figures who draw American society together as one. Warren’s evangelicalism creates as many enemies as friends, and Gene Robinson is responsible (at least as a token figure-head) for much of the disunity in the world wide Anglican Church at this time. Surely he could have found less controversial individuals to do the job for him? Even Katharine Jefferts Schori would have been less controversial – at least she is the head of a national church body. Her moral stance is perhaps no different to Gene Robinson’s, but she is hardly the “lightning rod” that Robinson is. And if he had chosen her to do the job, he would have been making a statement about at least 50% of the American population – women. (Has a female cleric ever offered the inaugural invocation?).
So if we judge a person by the company he keeps, what are we to make of Obama’s choice of these two clergymen to lead the prayers at these significant public events?