Why we need inaugural prayers
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The selection of prosperity gospel preacher Paula White as one of the clergy saying prayers at Friday's presidential inauguration has ignited some controversy.

Evangelical critics cite her flamboyant exaltation of material riches and her alleged rejection of Christianity's traditional understanding of the Trinity. White, who's a friend and neighbor to President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHannity urges Trump not to fire 'anybody' after Rosenstein report Ben Carson appears to tie allegation against Kavanaugh to socialist plot Five takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's fiery first debate MORE, insists she affirms Christian orthodoxy as defined in the Nicene Creed.

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Inaugural prayers have become one of the rites of American civil religion. And the extent to which Christian orthodoxy or specificity should be expected from them and their delivering clergy is debated. Franklin Graham was criticized for citing Jesus Christ in his prayer for George W. Bush's inauguration.

 

Inaugural prayers did not begin until Franklin Roosevelt, an Episcopalian more devout than commonly realized, who expertly performed and appealed to the craft of civil religion. Across nearly 70 years the clergy at inaugurations have been Mainline Protestants, Catholics, Jewish rabbis, and evangelicals like Billy Graham. American civil religion, largely created by American Protestants early in the republic, hasn't always been inclusive, but has developed into a broad understanding of America as one nation under God.

Most clergy practitioners of American civil religion have been more staid than flashy Paula White. But less than orthodox Christian theology has not been wholly unusual. Two Unitarian clergy served as chaplains to the U.S. House of Representatives in the 19th century and one served as U.S. Senate chaplain early in the 20th century. Several 19th century presidents were Unitarian as was William Howard Taft early in the 20th. Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s was the last Unitarian major presidential nominee.

In early America stately Unitarians, although denying the Trinity, were considered ethically and culturally Protestant. The late 20th century collapse of liberal Protestantism and rise of evangelicalism have elevated the political importance of personal piety. President-elect Trump, an infrequent Presbyterian, didn't claim great piety but appealed strongly to evangelicals with promises to protect religious freedom. His friend Paula White, to the derision of skeptics, has said he has professed Christ.

In the inaugural prayers, White will be joined by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a rabbi, an Hispanic evangelical, a black preacher also said to be a prosperity gospel advocate, and Franklin Graham, who himself has dismissed concerns about White's theology as irrelevant for the inauguration. There will be no Mainline Protestants, signifying their continuing decline.

But Mainline Protestants, however diminished, continue to bolster American civil religion. National Cathedral, despite the misgivings of the Episcopal bishop who presides there, will host an inaugural prayer service that Trump will attend. And the Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, has defended the rectitude of churches praying specifically for the new President:  

We can and, indeed, I believe we must pray for all who lead in our civic order, nationally and internationally. I pray for the President in part because Jesus Christ is my Savior and Lord. If Jesus is my Lord and the model and guide for my life, his way must be my way, however difficult. And the way prayer for others is a part of how I follow the way of Jesus.

Bishop Curry noted that the Episcopal Church's liturgy traditionally includes prayers for "those who bear the authority of government," as the Bible admonishes the faithful to pray for kings and all in power. He recalled that the black congregation in which he grew up prayed for political leaders on both sides of civil rights. And he explained that "when we pray for [political leaders], we are actually praying for our nation, for our world, indeed we are praying for ourselves."

These observations should be instructive for a growing number of American Christians, especially evangelical elites, both conservative and liberal, who are discomfited by American civil religion. For these critics, civil religion is an unacceptably diluted and compromised spirituality in service to Caesar instead of the living God. They believe a more secular America may no longer merit enthusiasm from believing Christians, who should instead focus on reviving the church as shelter against an increasingly hostile culture.

These Christian purists have legitimate concerns about preserving and reviving the faith of their traditions. American civil religion is no spiritual substitute for personal piety or the rich theological doctrinal specifics of individual denominations. The original Protestant architects of civil religion never intended it would be.

Instead they crafted American civil religion as an innovative blend of civic and private piety. It imposes religious specifics on nobody. And it allows the wide mix of American denominations, including non-Christians and the theologically heterodox, to freely participate in public life without silencing or diminishing their faith. Unity is sought in the common pursuit of transcendent purpose for the public good.

In a highly polarized America where identity politics often trump unity and the public good, the venerable tradition of civil religion seems more needed and important than ever. That this tradition is sufficiently flexible to include prosperity preachers, rabbis, Catholic bishops, evangelicals and many others who don't typically coalesce is a confirmation of its strength.

Mark Tooley, author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth Century, is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy and editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy.


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