Like the rest of the country, I spent the noon hour riveted to the television set. Since I knew I would be contacted by a few media outlets immediately after the speech I was diligently taking notes on the prayers and Obama’s address.
Let’s start with Rick Warren. After all of the controversy surrounding his choice to deliver this prayer I thought Warren did everything he could to take the attention off of himself. It was classic Warren. He tried to be as inclusive as possible, stressing themes of compassion, care for the planet, justice, and God’s love for everyone. He even quoted from the Qur’an. (“You are the compassionate, the merciful one…”).
Of course many who opposed Proposition 8 (which Warren supported) will perceive some of these words as shallow, but I do think they represented Warren and his ministry. The prayer separated Warren from the leaders of the Christian Right and reflected the values of a younger generation of evangelical Christians. Moreover, they echoed, at least in a general and abstract sense, the major themes of Obama’s faith-based initiatives and how the new president thinks about the relationship between faith and policy.
There was also a part of this prayer that called to mind eighteenth-century fast days during the American Revolution. Warren asked God to forgive the people of the country for its selfishness and consumerism. Many Christian republicans such as John Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, John Adams, and Philip Vickers Fithian (yes, Fithian!) believed that national confession might save the republic from its difficulties.
This was the first time in history that an inaugural prayer ended with the Lord’s Prayer. I found this interesting for a few reasons.
First, it made the prayer an explicitly Christian one. This, of course, was reinforced by his choice to pray in the name of Jesus. There was some controversy about his decision to pray in the name of Jesus, but by doing so he did not depart from the way most inaugural prayers have ended.
Second, for Christians it turned the prayer from a civic one to a spiritual one. The Lord’s Prayer, of course, transcends the nation. It brings those who recite it into a global community of Christians praying in the way in which Jesus taught them to pray.
Third, Warren’s use of the Lord’s Prayer was particularly fascinating when one thinks about the context in which Jesus first uttered it in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6 Jesus is rebuking the Jewish teachers of the law for praying in public so that they could be seen by others and draw attention to themselves. What is an inaugural prayer if not a public prayer to be seen by others? Warren knows that this is not how Jesus taught Christians to pray. Instead, Jesus tells Christians to go into their closet and pray. And instead of babbling “like the pagans do,” they should pray the prayer that the early Church would come to call the “Our Father.” Warren may not have been in the closet, but by reciting the Lord’s Prayer he made the best of the public role in which he found himself. He reminded Christians how to pray and diffused any attempts to politicize his words.
Finally, there were some evangelical themes in Warren’s prayer. His reference to Jesus “who changed my life” was reminiscent of George W. Bush’s remark about why Jesus was his favorite philosopher. The reference to all people being held accountable before God for their actions reflected common evangelical beliefs about God’s judgment.
Stay tuned–some thoughts on Obama’s speech are coming right up.