Michael Kessler: The Controversy Over Prayers at the Inauguration

Roundup: Historians' Take

Michael Kessler, in Sightings, the newsletter of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School (1-27-05):

[Michael Kessler is assistant dean for strategic planning and faculty development and teaches religion and political theory in the College at Georgetown University.]

At the 2001 Presidential Inauguration, Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell's benediction concluded on a controversial note: "We respectfully submit this humble prayer in the name that's above all other names, Jesus, the Christ. Let all who agree say, 'Amen.'" Caldwell explained prior to delivering the 2005 Inaugural benediction, "I expect to speak God's word over the world ... and pronounce God's blessing on the people." And God's word, for Caldwell, is Jesus. But this year, in newfound deference to America's melting pot of faiths, Caldwell modified his closing: "Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."

Franklin Graham, who also appealed to Jesus in his 2001 invocation, was less conciliatory: "There are factions of society today that hate God .... In America, where our currency declares 'In God We Trust,' it still surprises me that when a Christian minister does what he is ordained to do -- read and quote from the Bible, share the truth of the Gospel, pray in the Name of Jesus -- some people view those acts as borderline subversive!" (The Name).

Indeed, a minister ordained to lead prayers and preach the word ought to do just that. And after all, Christian or not, everyone understands that the key event of the inauguration is the Chief Justice's administration of the oath to defend the Constitution. So what is the harm in a president's spiritual advisors giving it up for Jesus in a public, political event?

Michael Newdow, California activist for separation of god from government, felt harmed by the prayer, but his lawsuit to remove the prayer from the inauguration was predictably dismissed at each level of the Federal Courts. He argued that being exposed to a religious observance at a public event constituted an injury to his public freedom. In its motion to dismiss the charges, the President's Inaugural Committee submitted that "in Newdow's previous attempt [to stop the prayers], the Ninth Circuit held that 'Newdow lacks standing to bring action because he does not allege a sufficiently concrete and specific injury.'" It seems the Court applied "sticks-and-stones" jurisprudence here; it is action, and not mere words, that causes harm. Many Christian commentators took this approach: Newdow and any others "offended" by the grace of Christ proclaimed could simply tune out. It is a free country, after all.

Supporters of the prayer note that it is steeped in American tradition, which is true. Others assert that having a Christian minister deliver an invocation and benediction reflects the Judeo-Christian heritage of the American nation. Those who make this claim will say that the inaugural prayer is a non-sectarian reflection of our link to a moral and religious past that permeates our laws.

President Bush expressed a similar sentiment in his speech: "In America's ideal of freedom, the public interest depends on private character .... That edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people Š ideals of justice and conduct that are the same yesterday, today, and forever."

If this were true, of course, the prayer could have been offered in Allah's name, or delivered by a Rabbi or cleric of any religion that expresses the fundamental principles of "good will" proclaimed by Bush. These various religions, Bush seems to suggest, are all really saying the same thing: respect the ideals of liberty, justice, and equality embedded in the Constitution. Anyone who hears "In Jesus' name" should merely remind himself that the Sermon on the Mount offers a set of moral ideals roughly consistent with the Mosaic Code or the Koran, or even John Locke for that matter.

But this construal poses a double bind for those religious persons who want to proclaim their version of Jesus from the rooftops -- or the presidentially appointed pulpit. Those who invoke the name of Jesus would likely resist equating 'their' Jesus to a set of common moral principles, for if one makes the case for the inclusion of "Jesus" along these lines, the name becomes a mere "passive symbol" with a "secular purpose" (as Chief Justice Warren Burger put it in reference to the placement of creches on public land).

Thus, if believers like Caldwell take 'their' Jesus seriously -- more seriously than political power -- perhaps they should consider keeping Jesus out of political events.

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