Prayers for the New President

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The president and vice-president, along with their wives and the Clintons, attended a national prayer service at the Washington Cathedral this morning. I know what you’re thinking–good Lord, enough with the religion already! Can’t we manage a strictly secular transfer of power in this country? Which is why I urge you to watch the service if you have the time. I’ve sat through a lot of these things and this was first time I was struck by the useful secular purposes that civil religion can hold.

Reverend Sharon Watkins (head of the Disciples of Christ denomination) was the preacher, the first time a woman has held such a prominent religious place at an Inaugural event. Watkins was one of the small group of religious leaders who met with Obama shortly after he became the Democratic nominee. She impressed the then-candidate with the powerful prayer she offered at the close of their gathering. While she prayed, Watkins stood behind Obama and placed her hands on the shoulders of Franklin Graham and T.D. Jakes, who sat on either side of him, symbolically bridging different strains in the Christian community.

Her sermon this morning bridged divides as well, pulling together secular and religious sources behind one simple theme: a president will be tempted but cannot afford to stray from his ethical center. This president is unusually grounded, but after a week of parties and concerts and celebrations and fanfare that would explode even the smallest ego, it seemed right to send Obama off to his first day of work on that note. “We need you to listen to the better angels of your nature,” Watkins preached to an audience of one, “and by your example encourage us to do the same.”

What made the sermon such a useful model of civil religion is that Watkins rooted it in secular ideas as well as Scripture. “This is the Biblical way,” she said. “It is also the American way–to look beyond ourselves.” She quoted Emma Lazarus, a Cherokee legend, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Obama’s own 2004 DNC speech: “It’s that fundamental belief–I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper–that makes this country work.” It was a perfect complement to Obama’s address yesterday, letting him know that those were nice words, but he’d better stick to them. Because religious communities, the nation as a whole, and the world will be watching to hold him accountable. 

The rest of the event was more celebratory and explicitly spiritual. Democratic interfaith events can sometimes be so packed with participants in an effort not to leave anyone out that they are not inclusive so much as exercises in box-checking. But the procession of religious leaders at the start of the service–Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic, Jewish, Episcopal, Evangelical–had the feel instead of a celebration of the religious diversity that thrives more in the U.S. than any other country in the world. It’s impossible to completely get away from Protestantism in an Episcopal Cathedral, but the service was a nice break from the Protestant monopoly of voices that had participated in the preceding Inaugural events.

A few random observations: 

— With all the talk about Obama’s faith, people often forget that Biden is a devout Catholic. He’s an old-school guy who always seems a bit unnerved by these weird non-liturgical Protestant prayers, but he was the only one in the row of religious Democrats who sang the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” by heart.

— Presidents usually include their personal pastors in Inaugural events, but Obama hasn’t yet chosen a home church here in Washington and he obviously wasn’t going to put Jeremiah Wright on the program. The closest person was Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., the father of Trinity’s new pastor, who offered a prayer during the service.

— During the singing of the National Anthem, Obama and Hillary Clinton–with their campaign-trail training–were the only ones with their hands over their hearts.

— Finally, if you watch the service for no other reason, fast-forward through to Dr. Wintley Phipps singing “Amazing Grace.” Bill Clinton’s jaw literally dropped during the performance, which was absolutely incredible.