GUESTVIEW: Obama inauguration: An interfaith invocation to answer the critics
The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author is Program Director at the Interfaith Center of New York. He is writing a book about Interfaith and Civil Society.
The choice of Rick Warren to deliver the inaugural invocation, and the drama surrounding it, was President-elect Barack Obama’s latest carefully planned move to prove that he is not a far out liberal, but instead mainstream. Obama is good at the art of compromise, but also at improvisation. The liberal outcry that followed, and his addition of the openly gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson to join the party, continues to demonstrate his skill as political tai chi master.
(Photo: Obama and Warren at Saddleback Church,17 Aug 2008/Mark Avery)
But Obama would be more in keeping with his own sense of diversity if he had the first ever interfaith invocation. Instead of a single speaker from a single religion, why not have many from a diversity of faiths and political positions? Instead of a liberal Christian or an evangelical Christian, he could have a conservative Christian, a liberal Jew, and a Muslim, a Buddhist and a Hindu (or any such combination).
Interfaith as it has developed over the last century is often misunderstood. It does not mean many religious groups merging into a kind of single religion or religious Esperanto. Nor does it mean different religions holding hands in a kumbaya moment. Instead, good interfaith takes place when different religious traditions offer their own unique perspectives, one after another, in a shared public space. It allows people to remain who they are, amidst others who do the same.
Interfaith events hold the basic symbolic value of bringing everyone together, and this upcoming situation clearly calls for such a strategy. In fact it does so in Obama fashion far more than his current choice of a single conservative voice, no matter what his pragmatic arguments are.
This is why we should be happy for Robinson’s inclusion, but distressed by his idea of not giving a Christian prayer. It’s important to see upstanding Christians who are homosexual. But when a Christian bishop speaks not for Christians but for other faiths, it is actually a bad day for the other religions. Someone else is speaking for them (and that person is usually a Christian). Other faiths must speak for themselves. Good liberal Christians get themselves in trouble when they think they can be somehow universal or speak for everyone.
(Photo: Robinson outside the Lambeth Conference in Canterbury, 21 July, 2008)
Would an interfaith vocation create a happy ending to Obama’s predicament?
Not for everyone. It would, however, challenge groups on both sides of the aisle. Conservative commentators tend to criticize interfaith as New Age or liberal fluff. But if Warren were only one of many leaders standing together, they could hardly do so. They may have to see interfaith as a decent way to go, where they can keep their views, but engage more and politicize less. It could reconfigure interfaith all together, galvanizing evangelicals to the growing interfaith movement.
It would also challenge liberals, who tend to see interfaith as their turf. In a way similar to Robinson, it is far too often that liberal religious leaders claim they are a diverse group speaking in one voice, only to be religiously but not culturally, theologically or politically diverse. Instead, if Obama had an interfaith invocation that included conservatives, a real range of diversity would stand together on nobody’s reserved turf.
Such a strategy would be refreshing and could signal a new way of doing business when it comes to religion. It may make for a reconsideration of the overly Christian Faith-Based Initiative, once the new administration has a chance to focus on things other than war and the economy.
And perhaps it could re-announce what public religion has always meant (or supposed to mean) in our American context: a vibrant mixture of conservative and liberal religious groups from every faith, engaged in our civic sphere, fostering our shared democratic tradition.
Matthew Weiner is the program director at the Interfaith Center of New York and is writing a book about interfaith in New York City.