Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Prayer Punditry

In 1980, Rev. Bailey Smith, then president of my own Southern Baptist Convention, caused a brouhaha when he declared “God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews.” Today, Dr. Rick Warren, another prominent Southern Baptist, didn’t even give them (or any other non-Christians) a chance to pray when he offered a faith-specific, Christian prayer at President Obama’s inauguration—unlike Rev. Joseph Lowery, who gave an inclusive and memorable benediction, and Rev. Barry Black, the U.S. Senate Chaplain, who prayed reverently and appropriately at the inaugural luncheon. Warren had every legal right to do what he did, according to the First Amendment, but he was still wrong to do so.

He was wrong because there is nothing in Scripture that requires adding the words “in Jesus’ name” to every prayer. That’s not what praying in Jesus’ name means anyway. He was wrong because Paul tells us, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient: all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify” (1 Cor. 10:23). Warren may have had the right to pray in Jesus’ name, but it didn't edify those present who don't call on our Savior’s name. He was wrong because it went against the spirit of the occasion, which focused on diversity and bringing us together as a nation in spite of our differences. But most of all he was wrong because it violated the Golden Rule.

Put the shoe on the other foot, Christian, and ask yourself how you would have felt if at the inauguration a Rabbi prayed a Jewish prayer that excluded Christians. Or if an Imam prayed an Islamic prayer. If you can't say amen to someone else’s faith-specific prayer, how can you expect them to say amen to yours?

For an intelligent discussion of the issue from one Jewish military chaplain’s perspective, see the following article by Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff: “Prayers That Hurt.”  (I served with Chaplain Resnicoff one summer in 1993 when he was a  senior Navy Captain and I was an Ensign Chaplain Candidate.) 


  1. Travis, I was interested to find out that Billy Graham did not use Jesus' name in his inaugural prayers. I thought Warren attempted to tone his use of Jesus name down by couching it as the One who had changed his life, rather than some more exclusive description. Still, I thought Joseph Lowry's prayer more appropriate to the occasion and more heartfelt to those listening. Thanks for having the courage to post this. I'm sure you'll get lots of comments. -Chuck

  2. Travis, have you followed any of Rick Warrens involvement in this past campain? I have a little and while I do not have the Background that you have, I do feel that Rick is trying to appease the Christian crowd after he totally supported Obama during the election only to find out from Obama at the debate at his church, that obama supports gays, abortion.

    While I cannot claim to know or claim to havve followed Warren's teachings. The little that I have read and followed, Makes me turn the other way. All this being said, it doens't surprise me that Warren excluded all others in his closing.

    Also in further commenting on Mr Warnock's comment Billy Graham, Mr Graham closed with "The Name that is above all other names"

    Well got to get back to school,
    Amanda Ducnan

  3. Travis,

    I totally agree with you -- Warren had the right to pray the way he did, and it was definitely an encouraging prayer to many Christians in the crowd; however, it still wasn't the best choice of words considering his entire audience.

    I was especially amazed that he chose to end the invocation with the Lord's Prayer. I'm sure those in the crowd who didn't know the words and couldn't join in felt quite excluded. That should not take place at a ceremony that it meant to be a celebration for ALL Americans, not just Christians.

    Kevin Martin
    Raleigh, NC