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Inaugural Prayers of Hope and Tears

What John Piper, Charles Colson, Mark Driscoll, and others are saying about the Obama inauguration and its invocations.

Around the Christian blogosphere today, there's a lot of comparison between the inaugural prayers of Gene Robinson and Rick Warren. (Few religious bloggers seem to be commenting on Joseph Lowery's benediction.)

It should be no surprise that Robinson's prayer has been widely panned. Al Mohler went so far as to call it idolatrous. "Representation is undoubtedly symbolic, but Rick Warren and Gene Robinson represent radically divergent worldviews and incommensurate goals," the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president wrote. "They are not two very different representatives of one religion. They are instead two very symbolic representatives of two very different religions." (Mohler has also posted a prayer for President Obama.)

Fleming Rutledge, the first woman ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church, apparently agrees. "The basic problem with Bishop Gene Robinson is not that he is openly and actively homosexual. The real problem is that he does not believe Christianity is a universal faith, nor does he believe that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures have a universal message," she wrote after Robinson previewed his prayer in a New York Times interview. " For a Bishop of the Christian Church to say (aggressively) that he is shocked by Christian prayers offered at past inaugurations and that he will not offer a Christian prayer suggests that he does not really believe that the Christian gospel is truly universal (I do not use that wimpy word 'inclusive')."

But Minneapolis pastor John Piper says Robinson's homosexuality is certainly a basic problem (though one imagines he would agree with Rutledge's critique as well). Piper is critical enough of Robinson, but says President Obama made a grave error in inviting Robinson to give an invocation:

This is tragic not mainly because Obama is willing to hold up the legitimacy of homosexual intercourse, but because he is willing to get behind the church endorsement of sexual intercourse between men. It is one thing to say: Two men may legally have sex. It is another to say: The Christian church acted acceptably in blessing Robinson's sex with men.
The implications of this are serious. It means that Barack Obama is willing, not just to tolerate, but to feature a person and a viewpoint that makes the church a minister of damnation. Again, the tragedy here is not that many people in public life hold views (like atheism) that lead to damnation, but that Obama is making the church the minister of damnation. … [T]o bless people in these sins, instead of offering them forgiveness and deliverance from them, is to minister damnation to them, not salvation.

Michael Spencer (a blogger often known as the Internet Monk) says pretty much everything you need to know about what's going on within Christianity is exemplified by the differences between Robinson's prayers and Warren's.

"You can't talk reasonably and genuinely about a God of many understandings," Spencer wrote of Robinson's invocation. "Not with actual believers in Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, and Buddah [sic] around. You might as well pray to the cat. (It probably would be better to pray to the cat.)" As for Warren, "Evangelicalism, for all its problems, and all its Warren-influenced struggles with relevance, still has something powerful to say to the world about God, and about the one through whom we know who is the God we are talking about."

Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll praised Warren for doing exactly what Paul commanded Timothy. ("First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior" 1 Tim. 2:1-3.)

"If you want to criticize [Warren], of course you can," Driscoll wrote. "But remember, if you lived your life under the scrutiny that he does, you would likely be even easier to criticize. Also, remember that much of the criticism against him is often by those who, rather than praying for his ministry, criticize it out of jealousy. And, just so you know, not everything you read on the Internet is true. … [P]eople will quibble over parts such as creation or the mention of Martin Luther King Jr., but such quibbling reveals more about the critics than it does the prayer."

That we're talking about inaugural prayers at all is "is a perfect example of why the separation of church and state is an elite fiction that bears little resemblance to how democracy really works," Charles Colson said in his daily column yesterday.

Religious activities like public prayers have been excluded from public school graduations and football games. And yet, prayer and the Bible are integral components of our most important democratic ritual: the peaceful transfer of power. Every four years our rulers engage in the very rituals that they deny to the rest of us. …
Our leaders, whether they share our beliefs or not, still benefit from these quasi-religious rituals. The government of the United States seeks a kind of moral legitimacy, even as it upholds the so-called separation of church and state. Invoking God's blessing and placing itself under His judgment, if only for a day, furthers that purpose.

But isn't that part of the problem? asks Joe Carter (formerly of the Evangelical Outpost and now blogging at Culture11.com). "This ceremony is more akin to the coronation of Caesar than to the entrance into this world of Christ." Carter says it's not just Obama's inauguration he finds troubling. He doesn't like any of them.

Perhaps it is because I have a deep disdain for both monarchy and civil religion that I feel such revulsion, for Inauguration ceremonies employ the symbolism and trappings of both. … The transition of presidential power from one man to another does not mark a significant transition in the culture of America. Our worries, fears, and concerns do not abate because there is a different man in the White House. Our dreams, hopes, and happiness do not increase because of who occupies the Oval Office. This change in government does not portend a change in human nature or the hearts of our fellow citizens. America — all that is good and bad about us — remains the same.

That perspective may be missing during every inaugural season, but it seems particularly lost during this presidential transition, writes Nashville-area pastor Trevin Wax. "The thrill of seeing an era of sinful racism put behind us has faded quickly, for me at least. I hate to be the one to pop the balloon of our collective national pride in this historic moment, but I sense that we as Americans are facing the rise of a new national sin. …

"[T]he truly troubling aspect of the new era we have just inaugurated is the underlying assumption among so many in our country that now, finally, we have truly arrived. A new age has dawned! We are now above racism in our land. We have put behind us the terrible sins of our past and we are moving forward into a new world of hope and peace. We have recaptured the moral high ground in our world. We are unstoppable, unbeatable, unassailable!"

It's the spirit of Babel, Wax writes.

Or maybe it's just the spirit of hope and eagerness, says Brad Lomenick, director of the Catalyst church leadership conferences. "We all know we have an uphill battle. President Obama is not the answer to solving all the problems. I disagree with most of his policies. Almost all of his policies. But change can be good, and he has inspired us," he writes "I think he is a good man, and I am going to pray for him and his team, and do what I can to be part of the solution. But it is not about one man or one administration or one team. It is about our country. The American spirit and resolve just needs a nudging, a strong reminder of where we've come from, and where we are going. Today, I am proud."

Related Elsewhere:

More coverage of the inauguration is available at our politics blog.

Olsen also rounded up the history of inaugural Bibles and verses in a Christian History article.

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