Two Prayers, Two Faiths
A million Americans braved a cold and windy day in the nation’s capital to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office as the forty-fourth President of the United States. Those gathered on the National Mall were joined by millions more around the nation and the world who watched on television or over the Internet. The transfer of power in the world’s most powerful nation has become predictable, almost routine. But this year, the inauguration meant more than a shift in control of the executive branch from one political party to another. The inauguration of the nation’s first African American president had the effect of reaffirming many Americans’ faith in their country.
Many nations have a civil religion, a set of symbols and rituals that endow the nation and its political institutions with an aura of sacred authority, and the American people have an unusual kind of civil religion. Americans believe that their nation has a particular calling—a calling to embody the ideal of the inherent equality of every human being and the proposition that no member of a society can be justly denied the rights that other members’ enjoy. This American belief is more like a civil faith than a civil religion; it serves as a promise of things to come rather than as a deification of the powers that be. Americans know that their nation has not always fulfilled its calling. The history of slavery marks only one of the nation’s many failings. But the election of an African American—a member of the very race that this nation has successively enslaved, terrorized, impoverished, and disenfranchised—has for many Americans restored their faith in our nation and its calling.
During the inaugural ceremony, two preachers—Pastor Rick Warren and the Rev. Joseph Lowery—offered prayers. These two preachers are both Protestants, and they both evoked the nation’s civil faith in their prayers. That much at least they have in common, but the two are different in many ways.
Rick Warren is the pastor of Saddleback Church, a mega-church located in a wealthy city in southern California. Warren’s books are purchased and read by millions around the world. With a message that combines conservative family values with a broad, progressive social agenda, Warren has positioned himself as the best known spokesman for America’s evangelical Protestants.
Joseph Lowery started out as a United Methodist minister in Mobile, Alabama in 1952. When the civil rights movement began, he emerged as one of its most important leaders. In 1957, he and Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Lowery served as president from 1977–1997. There are few men or women in America who have played a more important role in African Americans’ struggle for equality, and few pastors whose work have done more good for this country.
Warren offered the invocation. He began by praising the omnipotent creator God of Genesis, the God who created “everything we see and everything we can’t see,” and he quoted the Shema Yisrael (“Hear, oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”), a Jewish prayer based on Deuteronomy. Warren begins his prayer for America with the Old Testament, with the Israelites and their covenant with God. Like ancient Israel, America is a nation set apart, a people with a special role to play in history. “Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans. United not by race or religion or by blood, but to our commitment to freedom and justice for all…. When we presume that our greatness and our prosperity is ours alone, forgive us.” America is a nation with a mission, and because of the nation’s commitment to that mission, it has become great and prosperous.
Warren’s prayer recognized that America has not always been true to its calling, and the solution to these failings is to be reborn in our faith. “May we have a new birth of clarity in our aims, responsibility in our actions, humility in our approaches and civility in our attitudes…” His language was much like that of the revivalist preacher (minus the fire and brimstone); he calls for rebirth in the heart of each individual, for each and every one of us to take responsibility, to be humble and civil. But the end result is communal, even covenantal; the rewards of individual renewal will be found in common blessings. “May we never forget that one day, all nations, all people will stand accountable before You.”
Rick Warren’s America is a nation that has responded to God’s call, and that, because it has done so, enjoys God’s blessings. His hope is not for a just and healthy America, but for “a more just, a more healthy” America. This is the prayer of a people with a deep and firm belief in the basic goodness and righteousness of their nation.
Lowery’s benediction was a very different prayer, one rooted in the African American church. The God in this prayer is not a judge who dispenses power and wealth to the righteous; this is a God who offers comfort and mercy to the weak. “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way, thou who has by the might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, lest our heart.” These words are from a poem written by James Weldon Johnson, a poem that has come to be known as the “Negro National Anthem.” Baldwin’s words also take us back to the Old Testament, but the Israel it evokes is the Israel of Exodus—the Jews in flight from their enslavers.
The rest of Lowery’s prayer called for atonement and healing in our nation. The Lord will work through our new leadership, “to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism of the rich, the elite of these.” The imagery of Lowery’s benediction was darker and harsher than Warren’s cautiously optimistic invocation. Warren celebrated a “hinge point of history… in a land of unequaled possibility.” Lowery found us in “a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate.” Warren spoke of the American commitment to freedom and justice; Lowery described a people that have “sown the seeds of greed—the wind of greed and corruption.”
As dark as Lowery’s benediction was in some moments, it was also a statement of civil faith, a proclamation of a strong and abiding hope. “And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.” This is not the prayer of a people who believe in the righteousness of America, the nation that exists today; it is the prayer of a people who have faith that this nation someday might—and perhaps finally has begun to fulfill—its sacred calling.
These two men who share so much—two Americans, Christians, Protestants, preachers, leaders—hold to faiths in their country that are so different. But they stood together on that stage, together, for the nation and the world to see. Throughout his campaign, Senator Obama told us that he was a uniter, that he “brings people together.” At least he did it with these two men. It might have been superficial, an artificial moment staged for the cameras. When they prayed, they almost sounded like they were praying for different countries with different histories and different peoples, but when they prayed they bowed their heads together.
As long as the people of this country adhere to different civil faiths, the nation will remain divided. This division is not about red and blue, and its about more than just black and white. This is a division between those who believe in America as a land of unequaled possibility and of freedom and justice for all and those who believe in America as a hope unfulfilled, a promise broken. The divisions aren’t gone yet. They are deeper and wider than any one candidate or political campaign can bridge. But the end of this election seems to offer hope for a new beginning, the beginning of a growing faith in a nation that holds the same promise for all her people.