The Politics of Prayer

On Tuesday the 20th, Barack Obama son of the entire world (since everybody is laying a claim on him) was finally inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America. 

On Tuesday the 20th, Barack Obama son of the entire world (since everybody is laying a claim on him) was finally inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America. 

At the inauguration, Reverend Rick Warren, an evangelical pastor of the Saddleback church in Southern California, gave the invocation.

His selection by Obama caused uproar in many sections of the gay, lesbian and trans-sexual community as the pastor, who has frequently visited Rwanda, is known to be an ardent supporter of a ban on gay marriages in his state – California.

Reports indicate that angered gay rights advocates registered their protest with Obama saying that his choice was a sign of disrespect as in fact they were a constituency that had strongly supported his campaign.

They were now unsure that their agenda would be given prominence at his desk. When asked to comment on that choice, Obama, himself a professed Christian, said that he held views “absolutely contrary” to Warren on gay rights and abortion and described himself as “a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans.”

On the other hand, Mr. Obama’s choice of Rick Warren was also seen as a sign that he was willing to reach out to social conservatives as he is viewed to be too centrist by many of them. In fact, many termed it an excellent choice.

While still defending his choice, Obama made an effort to reassure all Americans that they were to expect a wide range of viewpoints during the course of the inaugural festivities and that that was the magic of America – a country of people who were diverse, noisy and opinionated.

True to his word, Episcopal Church’s controversial homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, a man who dumped his wife and children to live with another man, was given the platform to pray during the Martin Luther Day celebrations. His prayer was however not viewed on HBO, the sponsoring broadcaster.

According to them it was because his prayer came just before the actual time HBO were scheduled to begin broadcasting. Whether it was done on purpose or not, this only served to expose the discomfort many, including Obama may have with this constituency of Americans.

As if sensing the discomfort he was causing, Bishop Robinson prayed that God may bless America with anger at all discrimination even that which is directed towards the gay community.

On the very day of the inauguration, Rev. Warren voiced a prayer that was seen by many as an attempt to be as inclusive as he could.

According to historian R.B. Bernstein who teaches at New York Law School, Rev. Warren’s invocation covered the major religions as he began with a fundamental Jewish prayer that declares the “Lord is one.”

Then he alluded to a description of God as the “compassionate and merciful one” that opens almost every chapter of the Quran.

Yet even as he appeared to pacify those who have fought with him over gay marriage, he raised other eyebrows by invoking Jesus’ name, and concluding with the Lord’s Prayer - both particularly Christian practices on a day that has typically been characterized by more general expressions of civil religion.

This, was deemed by some as the best Rev. Warren could do to deliver a message of inclusiveness and still remain true to his faith. To lead a whole nation, such as America with all its freedoms, in prayer is not by any definition an easy assignment for any religious leader true to their cloth.

This is because religion is for many a question touching on the fundamentals of their very existence and any move to discredit one’s beliefs has and will always spark conflicts of magnanimous proportions.

For politicians, it appears very possible to balance around such sensitive issues and keep everyone contented. In fact in his second book ‘the Audacity of Hope’, President Obama writes that he doesn’t believe government should be used to propagate religious beliefs, even his own.

This is never the case for men of cloth. They are always expected to proclaim these beliefs unequivocally and at the same time be the people who preach unity and tolerance. Theirs is a tougher calling and Rev. Warren probably had the toughest job that day.

“And as we face these difficult days ahead, may we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches, and civility in our attitudes, even when we differ.”

With these words to conclude his prayer, Rev. Warren acquitted himself fairly well. People of all religious groupings should consider this call for clarity, responsibility, humility and civility even as they propagate their different beliefs.


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