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Faithful Inauguration January 22, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Politics.
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Candidates ReligionNestled comfortably, if not ironically, this week between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the inauguration of President Barack Obama, your heart would have to be frozen solid with the tears of unicorns to not pause and take stock of our nation.  Hope is in the air after all.  I’ve even been reading A Testament of Hope – The Essential Writings and Speeches of MLK this week.

Come on; grant me a moment of sentiment, it won’t take too long.  Truth be told, despite the overblown media blitz, there’s a resonance at this moment in history that I think is worth pausing for.

The peaceful transfer of power that occurred on Tuesday still strikes me as deeply meaningful.  In many corners of the world, regime change isn’t even an option.  When it is, tyranny is often traded for tyranny and the oppressed poor who bleed to see change find themselves all the more abused.  To watch President Obama stand and address our nation without fear of a genocidal reprisal or violent riots is certainly a testament to the endurance of our Constitution and character.  Look at me, shedding a patriotic tear, and before even mentioning the fact that we just inaugurated our first black president!  Dang!

Don’t worry, despite every temptation, I’m not going to just wax poetic this week in ever rising chorus that crescendos with the droning masses O-ba-ma, O-ba-ma!  And aside from humming America the Beautiful incessantly (Ray Charles’ cover by the way… is there any other?) I have been doing some actual thinking.

What struck me as I read MLK and watched the inauguration ceremony is the undeniably important position granted to faith in America’s public discourse.  We offer invocations, benedictions, swear on bibles, plea for national blessing and even justify civil change by a personal God’s decrees.  The Judeo-Christian God is treated as a kind of grand marshal over seeing our public events and dialogues.

These events are so normal that they often go unnoticed or at least as a believer they had always seemed normal and fitting from my perspective.  But are they really fitting?  Why, as a secular government, do we reference faith so publicly?  Now, I’m not asking why any individual might have a personal belief or not.  I’m interested in exploring why we as a secular pluralistic society continue to reference one specific faith as almost a mascot.

These public gestures seem to be an outgrowth of the fact that Americans love faith for faith’s sake.  If not adequately evidenced by the way we positively fawn over belief, this is certainly shown by the outright hatred we reserve for unbelief.  Atheists are the most despised minority in our country.  Gallup poll after Gallup poll shows that American’s would be more likely to elect a believing homosexual or Muslim to the presidency before an atheist.

I suppose that it should be no surprise then that we demand proof of purchase at our inaugurations.  ‘We’ve elected you assuming you believe in our God so you better get your hand on that bible!’

I don’t mean to be trite here; I actually do see this as an important role of religion in the public sphere.  Like I argued in How We Believe, part of the role of religion at its origins may have been as a complex signaling mechanism that showed your community that ‘I am trustworthy.’  Reciprocal altruism may have been too hard to determine for each individual in large societies so we relied on a ‘higher power’ to parse out punishment and reward for us.  Religious traditions and customs give us an effective shortcut for determining who is trustworthy.

Additionaly, the advantage of having a common mythology that faith brings seems to be closely linked to the proof of purchase example.  For the majority of Americans religion is a culture we have been seeped in.  Whether we believe or not, most of us are fluent in biblical stories and values.  Their recitation at public events immediately links us by our common tradition.  As Rick Warren reads The Lord’s Prayer, we are called to focus on a familiar reference point together.  Even if the prayer is ineffectual the focus itself seems valuable.

Another benefit of faith displayed in public settings is the enduring hope that accompanies often irrational belief.  This may be faith’s strongest argument.  Time and again the causes most worth fighting for, whether they are civil rights in the 60’s or the abolition of child sex trafficking today, are the causes that seem most impossible. People of faith are often committed to pressing through the impossible even when every logical argument implores them to turn back.  Further, as a nation in crisis we are comforted by the thought that perhaps our destiny is not our own and that God will rescue us against all odds.  We try when it seems senseless to do so and by trying at all we improve our chances for success.

Imagine Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address without reference to “the judgments of the Lord.” Or King’s I Have a Dream speech without references to “all of God’s children.” Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible, and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.  (Obama – Call to Renewal Keynote Address)

That being said, the issue faith in the public sphere does have a down side.  Even subtle nods to faith like a simple invocation strangely color the way we approach leadership, social debate and civil responsibility.

If these gestures are a ‘proof of purchase’ that our public figures are to be trusted because their faith resembles our own we can get into serious trouble by subconsciously demanding ritual instead of actual performance.  Even worse, if we believe that God is keeping an eye on our government than we as citizens are apt not to.  President Obama is accountable to one boss only, the American people.  We must be vigilant in holding him to the highest standards of performance no matter what God he trusts in or submits to.  I would argue that we the people failed miserably in this responsibility over the past eight years with the Bush administration.  Too many of us gave Bush ‘the benefit of the doubt’ because of his devotion to Jesus and I think we are suffering mightily for his poor decisions now.

I’m also concerned with the certainty that accompanies faith.  For too many, faith equates to an unwavering confidence that their personal beliefs are “the Truth”, and can validate unjust action unto their fellow citizens in an effort to establish the ‘Kingdom of God’.  Yet the strength of our society is built on debate and compromise.  Rick Warren’s invocation may have given us a common tradition to focus on, but at what cost?  Warren is on the record as comparing homosexuals to pedophiles.  He fought hard to deny homosexuals the right to marry this past November.  His uncompromising convictions lead him to deny his fellow citizens rights.  Faith of this manner, publicly endorsed at an inauguration, can only weaken our government’s important claim to a secular plurality.

Lastly, while faith in a higher power can provide the motivation to endure in the face of staggering odds I’m not sure that it is faith that actually solves our problems.  It’s the difference between motivation and inspiration. Faith may motivate you to press ahead but it’s the inspiration of human ideas, action, protest and compromise that actually get the job done.  It may take faith to ride out our economic crisis but it’s going to take smart peoples’ hard work and ingenuity to actually fix it.  I fear that peppering our public ceremonies with grand declarations of faith can muddle this fact.

All in all I’m left seeing both positive and negative aspects to government sponsored acts of faith like invocations but I think the costs of such gestures are starting to outweigh their benefits.  What do you think?

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Comments»

1. Benjamin - January 22, 2009

If nothing else, I’m glad to see Americans proud to be American again.

2. Adam Heine - January 22, 2009

I think this is fair and well-spoken, Casey. And I agree with pretty much everything you’ve said.

To a large extent, faith has become a hollow “proof of purchase”, which is what bothers me. We swear on the Bible before giving witness, but for how many is this actually a deterrent to lying? I am personally deterred by my own faith, but this ritual – even though it’s based on things I believe in – has no meaning for me.

We make vows and wed ourselves to each other “before God”, but how many actually remember that “holy vow” when they’re signing divorce papers?

I think a lot of it should be changed, but to what? I don’t know. If we remove God, we may replace one kind of faith for another (atheism, after all, is based on faith as well *ducks*). That’s not even approaching the question of whether or not it can be changed.

3. Bill - January 22, 2009

I too confess to a deeply entrenched quaqmire on this one…I can see the hypocrisy of it all, but also, the very soulfull felt need of a “One Nation, under God”.

On the one hand I listened carefully to see how Rick Warren would try to become “all inclusive” in his prayer…and he went on to name Jesus in several different languages to the best of his ability. Thereby allienating every person of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddahism beliefs?
The following day at the morning prayer service I watched as in the front row pew sat our new President and 1stLady, and right beside them Bill and Hillary Clinton..heads bowed in deep thoughtfull prayer. I assumed Bill’s prayer had something to due with Monica and business affiliations with countries hostile to us. I also heard “paplum” (babies milk) come from behind the podium as speaker after speaker invoked their very best oratoriall deep sounding prayer voice. Yes it was quite the “horse and pony” show, on the religious front.

Then I am left with what…after being able to label the pure hypocrisy of it.

I am left with this…
I do believe that this President will go to his closet and seek for guidance. I do believe that when he is alone and in crisis, he will look upwards. As have other men of his caliber who sat behind that desk.

I believe that with all of my sinfull nature, for me to sit back and throw stones at “anybody”, only does damage to my soul. And I take that path way to often. Even when I throw them at my very own government. Yes, we have every right to question, argue, stand, even revolt…but to just sit back and lob rocks, where is the righteousness in that.

If we remove God…what are we left with. All my mind can encompass is a pure “big brother, gray skied, robotic, dirge” of a Country….I am not sure anymore that He (God) is just limited to a “Christian” belief system, but I feel satisfied knowing He moves in “my amber waves of grain”. I dont know that my Country has His personal only blessing, but I am at rest knowing He watches over the “sweet land of liberty”. And as those who have given their all in battle to preserve this my freedoms…”land where my fathers died”, I like to believe they have gone to a better place set up by Him, who is the beginning.

Yes, I still believe He should be invoked on days of great National events…especially this one. Not by blow-hards from the back of over adorned churches, not by men whose lips surround microphones with agendas, but by us…the common man, who can see that a great time of change has come, and their is a new pride that can be felt across this our Nation. Yes, this citizen thanked his God.

Sometimes after writing something like that…I always shiver, for I know that my actions are not even close to what my words were.

4. Mark - January 22, 2009

A tough one – social convention versus secularism. I agree that the wrong message might be sent by the centrality of the Christian faith in Tuesday’s ceremony. There is little debate that the Establishment Clause is central and foundational to our history. Tuesday’s ceremony was not as potentially controversial as other presidential inaugurations that asked for a moment of silent prayer. A moment of silent prayer falls more squarely in line with Supreme Court precedent – where a dissenter’s silence imputes a message that may lead to judgment or scorn.

However, the Court has wrestled with issues surrounding public prayer – whether something that begins as a tolerant expression of religious views might indirectly coerce or suggest government imprimatur on a particular religion.

In Lee v. Weisman, the Court held that a religious prayer could not be recited before a public high school graduation ceremony. The Court focused on the susceptibility of teenagers to peer pressure and coercion especially in the face of social convention. It found particularly persuasive the fact that sitting silent during the prayer put the dissenting student in the awkward position of participating or protesting. The majority distinguished this from a town hall meeting where adults were free to leave with little comment and for a variety of reasons. Based on the Court’s chosen test, I’m not sure that the social conventions of invocation or benediction during a swearing in ceremony rise to the level of indirect coercion or indoctrination.

Obama comes from a mixed faith tradition, but has publicly expressed the importance of the Christian faith in his life. Certainly on the precipice of such an enormous task he might turn to his faith to guide him. The ministers of the invocation and benediction were his selections. Had he come from a Catholic, Jewish, Muslim or other faith tradition the religious ministers chosen would certainly have been different. Therefore, an element of personal selection come in here. We do not need to agree with Obama’s choice. Rick Warren makes my stomach sick. His use of the “Our Father” was a bit unnecessary, but in all of it the choice is linked to our chosen leader. Even more significant is that participation in the prayer, whether watching it remotely from a tv or even in crowds on the Mall, doesn’t seem to be coerced. One can chose to participate in the prayer or not without comment and for a variety of reasons. It might be as it was for me – a personal loathing of the minister, non-participation because you come from a different faith, atheism, agnostic etc. Little judgment would likely come from failure to participate. Not sure this rises to the level of coercion. Seems to me that words can be said and heard in a public space without endorsement by the listener.

Whether coercion is a proper test is certainly up for debate. Justice Blackmun in his concurrence felt that “the fullest possible scope of religious liberty” was more than mere freedom from coercion.

As Justice Scalia noted in his dissent – the Supreme Court begins each session with the words – “God save the United States and this Honorable Court” – does this make its members any less likely to advocate on behalf of separation and secularism despite their predispositions? Not sure. The words at a point become merely words. Social convention more than recognition of their meaning. Justices hearing the same words have vigorously defended the Establishment Clause and notable others have sought to weaken its prescription.

We elected a Christian leader and in his tradition some prayed. Although I believe very strongly in the separation of church and state, and share Casey’s feelings about Rick Warren, I’m not sure I share the exact same concern with how the ceremony was conducted.

5. Paul - January 22, 2009

I think it is difficult for any of us to truly see how disturbing this invocation might seem to those who either aren’t religious, or, have not been brought up Christian. As a non-believer, I’m not opposed to it because it is religious… because it is also more than its religious undertone. It is part of the traditions of that ceremony, and I view it with the same consciousness as I view the idea of saluting to the flag. It is part of our history, and it acts as a focal point for all americans to symbolically identify with because it is so deeply rooted in our countries’ founding. Be that as it may, I can totally sympathize with anyone who thinks it is wrong because it does seem to paint our country as a “Christian Nation”. Maybe the invocation should change… maybe instead of allowing rick warren to speak on behalf of one faith (though I do believe he tried to attone for this issue and other issues, whether he succeeded or not is still up for grabs in my mind), he reads a few sentences from important religious thinkers from around the world and ends with a short paragraph of his own. This would probably do a better job of defining the importance of religious thought within society instead of just making one religion seem like the legitimate source of faith.

At the end of the day I can say this: Though Obama is Christian, he will govern as a man that has a much more vast array of experiences than just his religious one. The speech Kennedy gave regarding the public’s concern of his Catholicism needs to be revisited, because i think his words would dovetail perfectly with Obama’s.

6. Mark - January 22, 2009

Paul – Just to clarify what I was saying in case there was some confusion. I’m not saying that Obama should govern the nation as a Christian. Obama is a Christian, but as Kennedy famously said he is not a Christian president, but the US president (I believe the Kennedy comments you refer to say something about him being the Democratic candidate for President, not the Catholic one). Obama is the US president and in that role (as Casey noted) he serves the people of this country, not God. Obama faces far more critical and daunting issues. The economy, two wars – I think we’re all familiar with the litany. As President, he serves the nation. But that doesn’t mean he must apologize for his religious beliefs or refrain from turning to his faith for strength (Kennedy spoke of this some from what I recall – I’ll have look back at that speech) (here I am not speaking to the invocation/benediction issue at all, but rather the tangential issue of how a leader should govern and separate the personal from the national/political). What he must refrain from is legislating his beliefs. Obama’s faith is important to him, but he has made it clear that he believes in a secular state where religion is reserved for the conscience of the individual. Tolerance and religious freedom are better served this way.

7. Paul - January 22, 2009

Sorry for the confusion Mark, my comments were not aimed at any of your statements. I was trying to make that distinction between how Obama will govern as a US president who happens to be Christian as compared to say, Dubya who governed as a type of Christian who happens to be president. After reading Obama’s opinion pieces on policy it is clear to me he is governing from experience as a reasoned politician. And even though I profoundly disagree with his decision on FISA earlier last year, none of his decisionmaking regarding policy ever was tainted with “looking into someone’s eyes and saw his soul” or “the Almighty told me this was the right way.” So in a sense, I just spent the last 5 minutes totally agreeing with you.

TL:DR version
Sorry for the confusion Mark, I totally agree with you.

8. Emmet - January 23, 2009

Okay, so I had this whole well thought out response all reasoned and typed out… and then I “lost” it to the god of the internet… CRAP! This is the ugly stepchild version.
1. I agree with almost all of what Adam said.
2. The government is the only organization that rivals the church for total command of hypocrisy.
3. The real value of the tradition of prayers and God statements at state events is in the questions they raise, such as, ‘Is this being used to justify or validate what what is happening?’ or ‘Is this the recognition/statement that we are all accountable to a higher power so take your actions seriously?’
4. I think God is a lot more interested in what we do then what we profess to be (there may be something about this in the Bible).
5. Like Casey referenced, faith has enabled people to accomplish what logic and common sense considered impractical or impossible, such as the abolition of slavery (William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, etc.), the civil rights movement (MLK and others), the non violent fight against communism and injustice in East Germany, the fight to validate the equality of the sexes (Paul and much of the church throughout history, with a few notable exceptions), and the continuing fights against human trafficking, the child sex industry, female circumcision, the caste system, as well as fighting for the undocumented, oppressed, and ignored. Faith has enabled people to do things that were not accomplished with out it and to continue to attempt those things that are yet to be accomplished, this is often good and sometimes bad (the crusades). This makes faith a popularly recognized force which will be at best a motivating factor in the actions of individuals who desire God’s Kingdom here on earth and at worst manipulated by those who want their own, in either case the government will always at least give it lip service which is more than it does for me (that’s what she said).

Like I said, ugly stepchild.

9. Emmet - January 23, 2009

If you are an ugly stepchild I apologise for my insensitivity.

10. Bill - January 23, 2009

I accept your apology.

11. bear - January 23, 2009

Also, Faith has taught Emmet that it is okay to apologize. Way to go man.

Bear

p.s. Thanks for the post–I agree.


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