After choosing an evangelical pastor to deliver the invocation at his swearing-in, President-elect Barack Obama has chosen two progressive Protestant leaders – a woman and an openly gay bishop – to bookend his inaugural ceremonies.
"It reflects his commitment to pluralism," said Shaun Casey, an ethics professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington who advised Obama during the presidential campaign. "My advice is for folks to look at the full range of people invited (to deliver prayers) – the sum is larger than its parts."
Obama's pick of California megachurch pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 20 was heavily criticized by liberals, especially gay groups. Warren advocated for the passage of Proposition 8, which outlawed gay marriage in California.
Episcopal Bishop V. Gene Robinson was among the most vocal critics, saying that Obama's decision to invite Warren "was like a slap in the face."
Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, announced Monday (Jan. 12) that he's been invited to kick off the inaugural ceremonies on Sunday (Jan. 18) by delivering an invocation at a celebratory concert at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Rev. Sharon Watkins, the first woman elected to lead the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will preach at a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral that concludes the inaugural ceremonies. She will be the first woman to deliver the sermon at the traditional inaugural event, according to the Presidential Inaugural Committee.
Obama's invitation "is an indication of the new president's commitment to being president of ALL the people," Robinson said in an e-mail to supporters. "I am humbled and overjoyed at this invitation, and it will be my great honor to be there representing the Episcopal Church, the people of New Hampshire, and all of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community."
Robinson endorsed Obama in August, 2007, and has remained an adviser to him, a spokesman told the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire.
"This is something the gay rights movement should focus on as much as the Warren pick," said prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan, "(that) Obama's understanding that American Christianity is not a monolith on the question of the sacredness of gay marriage."
Watkins, who was elected general minister and president of her 700,000- member denomination in 2005, serves on the board of the National Council of Churches and Sojourners, an anti-poverty ministry in Washington.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is closely aligned with the United Church of Christ, the denomination Obama joined when he became a member of Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ nearly 20 years ago. Obama broke ties with Trinity, however, during the campaign, after controversial church sermons were broadcast.
Unlike the UCC, which endorses gay marriage, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) does not have a denominational policy on same-sex unions.
"I hope that my message will call us to believe in something bigger than ourselves and remind us to reach out to all of our neighbors to build communities of possibility," Watkins said.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist and civil rights pioneer who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., will deliver the benediction at the swearing-in on Jan. 20.