From left, first lady Michelle Obama, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, his wife Jill Biden, former President Bill Clinton, and Secretary of State nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton attend the inaugural prayer service at the Washington National Cathedral in Washington (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong / January 21, 2009)






 TAC correspondent Mike Gray looks at the politics of prayer.

One of the great traditions surrounding a president’s inauguration (this one started by George Washington) is attendance at the National Prayer Service, the intention being to seek the Almighty’s guidance of and for the incoming administration:

"President-elect Obama’s faith is a central part of his life and he will begin the first full day of his Administration with a service of interfaith prayer and reflection," said Presidential Inaugural Committee Communications Director Josh Earnest.  "The National Prayer Service, which will embody the themes of tolerance, unity and understanding, is a worship service for all Americans."

Indeed, the participants were unified in their understanding of how tolerance is selectively applied to Christianity in order to marginalize it.

There is one thing, above all, that such ecumenical proceedings must do to remain ecumenical: They must never, ever incorporate prayers which end with invoking the name of Jesus Christ ("If ye shall ask anything in my name, I will do it") and, true to form, none did. (The Greek Orthodox primate did mention His name in the course of quoting Scripture, but only in reading context.) Unless I dozed off, not one of the other representatives of the Christian religion ever mentioned Jesus. I’ve heard of military chaplains who have been ordered not to pray in Jesus’s name, and it would seem that same proscription was being applied here.

It came as no great surprise when the opening prayer offered by a black preacher implored God to end the injustice and oppression that still characterize America—you know, the never-ending injustice and oppression perpetuated by five decades of multitrillion-dollar expenditures ostensibly intended to free the black man from the injustice and oppression that, according to the preacher, still characterize America.

Sharon E. Watkins, General Minister and President, Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) delivered the first sermon to be given by a woman at the National Prayer Service—and what a sermon. She somehow managed to cobble together ideas from all over: American Indian folklore, the Old Testament, the song "America, the Beautiful," and Emma Lazarus’s socialist poem affixed to the Statue of Liberty.

In her opening prayer (to whom, she did not specify), Rev. Watkins artfully misquoted a verse from Isaiah, changing the first person singular pronouns (I, me, my) to third person plurals (we, us, our, ours), in a transparent attempt to reinforce the notion that now in Washington at last there is change WE can believe in, or else.

She also pulled off a verbal sleight-of-hand that, unless you were paying careful attention, might go unnoticed: That by loving your neighbor (actualized in the new president’s redistribution schemes, although she did not mention them directly) you love God.

That’s very different from Jesus’s injunction that believers should love their neighbors as they love themselves; Jesus first mentions loving God above all else. Watkins’ revision suggests that God is in one’s neighbor, a New Age notion of all things being one, derived from Buddhism and Hinduism and entirely incompatible with Christianity.

This is kumbaya in the extreme; it doesn’t matter which god you believe in, she says, you can earn brownie points in Heaven by giving a sweater to the Salvation Army. Of course it’s quite good to help people in need, but it’s definitely wrong for a member of the Christian clergy to say that charity is the same thing as loving God. Plenty of atheists participate in charitable giving, and that’s quite decent of them, but Jesus made it very clear that such good works won’t change their final destination.

Faith without works is dead, but the converse is also true: Works without faith is equally DOA. Rev. Watkins evidently doesn’t see it that way, however. The thrust of her message from the bulliest bullpit outside of the Oval Office was purely Social Gospel in nature. No wonder she and others who adhere to that philosophy have reposed such optimistic faith in the incoming administration; for over twenty years the new president attended church services suffused with that very doctrine.

Parenthetically, I must confess that I never did figure out what she meant about feeding the good wolf. Here’s some background on her: "Watkins is the president and general minister of Christian Church [Disciples of Christ] in the United States and Canada, the first woman to hold that job. Dr. Watkins has an extensive background of service both in this country and abroad. Rev. Sharon E. Watkins is a member of the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches based in Geneva, and serves on the WCC’s Permanent Committee for Consensus and Collaboration." Does any of this surprise you?

Also in the spirit of ecumenicalism, Muslims were represented in the person of Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). With regard to this individual, Winfield Myers says the following on ‘The American Thinker’ website:

During a 2001 CNN chatroom interview, asked at what point in history the Muslim world "turn[ed] from a philosophical and educated state comparable to the Greeks to the now third world state it is in," Mattson emulated other members of the Middle East studies establishment and employed postcolonial theory to blame the West:

"Well, the decline began with the colonization of the Muslim world by European powers. One of the first things the colonialists did was to dismantle the institutions of what we could call civil society. The Muslim world has until now not recovered from that dismemberment of its society."

In a move hardly in keeping with the ecumenical nature of a National Prayer Service, Mattson sought to sow division between religious groups when in 2007 she advised American Jews not to trust conservative Christians:

"Right-wing Christians are very risky allies for American Jews because they are really anti-Semitic. They do not like Jews."

When a Gospel Children’s Choir sang "He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands" (quite well), my wife observed that they all seemed to be looking directly at the president. One wonders whether they were directed to do so or simply believed it to be true.

And finally, a minor note on decorum: When the Star Spangled Banner was being sung, the new president and secretary-of-state were the only ones in the front pew to show the proper respect by putting their hands over their hearts. The new first lady held her hands down before her (indeed, throughout most of the proceedings her body language bespoke boredom); both of the new vice president’s hands were down at his side during the anthem, while his wife clutched a program and likewise kept her other hand down; and former two-term president Bill Clinton did the same as the vice president’s wife.

Some might wish to excuse such poor manners as the unintended consequences of party-hardying until the wee hours, but others could be justified in having misgivings.

—Mike Gray