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Faithful Inauguration January 22, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Faith, Politics.
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11 comments

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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