GUESTVIEW: Obama inauguration: An interfaith invocation to answer the critics

By Reuters Staff
January 17, 2009

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.

By Matthew Weiner

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.

(Photo: Leaders of the world’s major religions at an interfaith conference in Nicosia, 18 Nov 2008/Andreas Manolis)
8 comments

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I believe Obama’s maternal grandmother was Unitarian.It was also in an Unitarian church that he said good-bye to her, last December.In the answers that Obama gives in an interview about religion, it seems like his beliefs are more aligned with the Unitarian principles than with strictly Christian principles.Would the Unitarian ‘Open Minds, Loving Hearts, and Helping Hands’ be considered too liberal?I am very happy about Robinson’s inclusion in the inauguration ceremonies, I learned about him in the documentary “For the Bible Tells Me So”.A Unitarian minister would have also been a good choice.Now that one of my children has ‘come out of the closet’ this week, I will continue the struggle for equality with even more ‘ganas’, as a straight ally.

Kudos to Matt Weiner!What a great idea to have an interfaith invocation. What President-Elect Obama’s election has done to galvanize the country toward positive change, so would such a simple act of allowing fellow Americans to experience, even for a moment, the richness of the various faith traditions that reside within our midst.Yes you can!

An interesting comment about Esperanto. I would point out however that Esperanto intends to be a common language, and not a “single” world language.You also might like to see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid= -8837438938991452670Otherwise http://www.lernu.net ?

i hope robinson does not do the damage to obamas celebration ,as he has done to marginalize his denomination.

Posted by brian lee | Report as abusive

Thank you, Matt! -For reminding us that true inclusion means creating and sharing in a space in which we can agree to respect our differences, having the humility and wisdom to know that we can learn from one another while remaining true to ourselves and our traditions.

Posted by Rev. Danielline Martinez | Report as abusive

Thank you, Matt for raising your voice about the need for embracing “interfaith” at such a pivotal moment as the upcoming Inauguration of Barack Obama.At the Democratic Presidential Convention, you will remember that there was a clear interfaith presence.It would have been lovely, appropriate and important for Barack Obama to set the tone for his new administration by inviting interfaith voices to share and bless his Inauguration.I am surprised that he chose not to do that. It’s not in keeping with how I’ve come to see him, so in the grand scheme of things – I am disappointed.I know that including the myriad of faith traditions on the planet would have been difficult – probably impossible – given time constraints, etc.However, surely he could have easily included representation from the three religions representing the Abrahamic traditions.How lovely to have included Jewish, Muslim, and Christian representation – all sharing this most unique moment in global history.Particularly, also, when tensions are so high in the Middle East.I look forward to Barack Obama’s administration.Undoubtedly, he will be an extraordinary President.Likewise, it would have been in keeping with that sense of “extraordinary” had he invited religious diversity to share and bless his Inauguration.May Peace Prevail on Earth!

Good thinking Matt. It might be difficult to have a genuine Interfaith Prayer in the midst of the Inauguration but the thought is one that surely has to see light at another public event.

A second Kudos to Matt Weiner!I was just discussing with a colleague at how disappointed I was at the lack of representation from other religions at the ceremony. I’m UU. We welcome everyone. Lately new members have been flocking in stimulated by Obama’s success, encouraged that we are becoming more accepting of diversity. The exclusion of different faiths is terribly disheartening and contradictory to the progress he represents.

Posted by Hattie Williams | Report as abusive