I’m bunkering down here in the nation’s capital, preparing for the road closures, bridge closures, parking restrictions and general mayhem that will come with the inaugural festivities for our new president. I have no plans to attend (have you been outside in D.C. in January?) but I am looking forward to the excitement, even if I’m one of the four percent of Washingtonians (yes, we were in the single digits) who didn’t vote for Obama this past year.
The big stories leading up to the inauguration — other than the scandals and bribery and what not — have surrounded President-elect Obama’s choices for which clergy will be involved in inaugural festivities. Purpose-Driven Life author Rev. Rick Warren is doing the big one but in a sop to gay rights activists, Obama just picked Bishop Gene Robinson to kick things off.
When you add in the other two clergy who will be participating, it’s a uniquely Protestant affair, which is sort of interesting. As we head into this huge celebration of civil religion, it’s brought back some memories for me.
I never realized how different Lutheranism was from American Protestantism until the weeks and months following the horrendous acts of terrorism on New York City, over the skies of Pennsylvania and in my city of Washington, D.C.
As the nation grew even more infatuated with civil religion, I found deeper meaning in the teachings of the Lutheran Confessions. When the Atlantic District President prayed a nebulous civil religion prayer at the Oprah Winfrey-led interfaith “Prayer for America” service at Yankee Stadium — with the full blessing and approval of President Gerald Kieschnick — it wreaked havoc on the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod. When those with a proper understanding of the confessions called the syncretizers on their commandment breaking, noted theologians such as Bill O’Reilly took the syncretizers side and questioned whether the LCMS could rightfully be called Christian.
It was a shameful and difficult period and it’s hard not to lose respect for President Kieschnick for just how poorly he handled the situation — from a managerial or leadership position even if not a doctrinal one.
And as we look to the competing prayers of Warren and Robinson, I can’t help but be reminded of the beauty of the Lutheran understanding of what it means to have no other gods before our God. Patriotism may be a virtue but it shouldn’t trump a clear confession of Christ and him crucified.
Note Robinson’s quote about his prayer:
Bishop Robinson said he had been reading inaugural prayers through history and was “horrified” at how “specifically and aggressively Christian they were.”
“I am very clear,” he said, “that this will not be a Christian prayer, and I won’t be quoting Scripture or anything like that. The texts that I hold as sacred are not sacred texts for all Americans, and I want all people to feel that this is their prayer.”
But of course that’s what syncretism does. Robinson’s more or less just being straightforward about it. The deities of civil religion force away distinctives and turns all belief into cliches and platitudes.