21 January, 2009

Inauguration Invocation

There was a great deal of hubbub in the media regarding Obama's selection of the Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, to deliver the opening invocation at his inauguration yesterday. Most of the outcry came from members of the GLBT community who perceived the selection of Warren, whose anti-gay stance is well known, as a slight against them; particularly as Obama has made a point of playing himself up as being "gay-friendly". There was also some concern from non-theists that the choice of an evangelical might lead to an overtly, even offensively, sectarian prayer. While I don't think religious prayer should play any legitimate part in the pomp and circumstance of secular government rituals, the invocation is a long-standing tradition (although not as old as Christian Nationalists would have you think! Prayers weren't a part of the inauguration until 1937.) and I don't think it's going away any time soon. The least we can hope for is that the minister chosen will attempt to be as non-sectarian and inclusive as possible. Many evangelicals however, care little for the societal benefits of such occasions and refuse to take a more inclusive or ecumenical approach. Would Warren's address follow this divisive path?

Well, the inauguration has now come and gone and for the most part, Warren did a pretty good job. The prayer was directed to "God our father", rather than "Jesus Christ", and while that's undeniably theistic, it does at least have the benefit of comporting with so-called "ceremonial Deism" and thus not being overly sectarian. And while Warren did include a personal reference to Jesus toward the end and concluded his prayer with the Christian "Lord's Prayer" (and Protestant Christian at that), he did NOT pray "in the name of Jesus" or conclude his prayer "in Jesus name", or anything overtly Christian like that. In addition, he obviously made what seemed to me a more or less good-faith attempt to be inclusive of at least the other Abrahamic faiths: the opening of his prayer included the following: "The Scripture tells us, ‘Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one’ and you are the compassionate and merciful one and you are loving to everyone you have made." This statement incorporates both the Hebrew Shema and the opening sentence of the Islamic Quran.

All in all, not a bad attempt at inclusion at what must necessarily be a divisive, pointless, and ultimately irrelevant exercise at an allegedly secular governmental function. The only negative that struck me, and it's a pretty big one, is when Warren said the following:
Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans. United not by race or religion or by blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all. When we focus on ourselves, when we fight each other, when we forget you, forgive us.
Huh? Freedom and justice for all? You mean like gay Californians recently stripped of their civil rights by you and your fellow travelers? Of course, for Warren and people like him, "for all" doesn't really mean ALL, it just means "all of those with whose choices I agree". No freedom and justice for gays. No freedom and justice for religious skeptics. No freedom and justice for women.

The immense irony in this statement, to which Warren is no doubt oblivious, is that evangelical Christianity, as a movement, is fundamentally in opposition to freedom. Freedom requires autonomy, both metaphysical and concrete. Moral agents possess, by definition, the right of self-determination and to deny that right is to deny both freedom and any real possibility of justice (or, indeed, of any moral value whatsoever...but that's another post). But evangelical Christians reject autonomy and declare that the right of self-determination does not exist; that the goal of Man's life has been decided for him and the rejection of this imposed purpose is not only sinful, but should be prevented by force of law.

The slavish devotion to imposed purpose is harmful enough, but at least it only harms those who believe in it. But when they attempt to impose this alleged "purpose" on the rest of us by legal fiat, they strike at the heart of freedom itself. Those who would use the power of the state to strip citizens of rights and privileges they enjoy by virtue of their humanity have no love for freedom or justice; they are in fact haters of them.

Americans, at least insofar as an "American" is defined as a citizen of the United States of America, should hold the values enshrined in the Constitution as common principles of both citizenship and social action. Former president Bush once infamously (and stupidly) said of the Constitution, "it's just a goddamned piece of paper!" There is a sense of course in which this is true (in that it is written on paper), but there is a greater sense in which it is absolutely false. The Constitution is the United States of America in a way nothing else can be. Freedom is paramount in its design and the protection of liberty its primary goal. Evangelical Christianity, in its denial of moral autonomy (freedom), stands in opposition to this most basic of American values.

And therefore, I found it somewhat ironic that Warren should wax poetic about American's "commitment to freedom and justice for all". He no doubt considers himself an American, but he and others like him most certainly do not share such a commitment.

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