Many Faiths to be Represented at Inauguration


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Jimmy LaRoue and Tony Gonzalez
Published: January 17, 2009

Religious rumbles have ensnared President-elect Barack Obama since controversial remarks made in the pulpit by his former pastor of 20 years, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, became headline news during the presidential campaign.

And, in recent weeks, Obama’s choices of religious leaders to speak at inaugural events have raised ire in some quarters.

Obama’s selection of megachurch pastor Rick Warren to preside at his inaugural day invocation has outraged gay-rights supporters, while Obama’s pick of the Rev. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, to give the invocation at Sunday’s inaugural event at the Lincoln Memorial, has riled up conservatives.

Adding to Obama’s religious divergence, he included a prominent civil rights leader - the Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference - to give the benediction at the presidential inauguration.

The day after, a plethora of faiths will be represented at the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral, with Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu clergy taking part. For the first time, a woman, the Rev. Sharon Watkins, president and general minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), will deliver the sermon at the event.

Area religious leaders say the diversity in Obama’s choices shows that he is trying to be more inclusive of different faiths, and wants to encourage dialogue.

“I think he’s really trying to go to different denominations to make it all encompassing, and make sure that everyone is a part of what is going on,” said Tom Reynolds, former Waynesboro mayor and current pastor at Jolivue United Methodist Church near Staunton.

The Rev. Dr. Donald W. Johnson of Union Baptist Church in Waynesboro sees Obama’s efforts in a similar light.

“It appears to me that what the president-elect is trying to is be ecunemical ... to bring all groups together,” Johnson said. “I think he’s doing the right thing in his position. That would not necessarily be my position. I’m a Baptist minister: I can be more dogmatic.”

Johnson said such inclusiveness will inevitably make some groups uncomfortable.

“I would admonish my congregation and everyone else to be fervent in our prayers for his success,” Johnson said.

Facing Troubles With Faith

Dan Wessner, an ordained minister in the Mennonite Church USA and a professor of international and political studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, said more discussion about Obama’s faith is a good thing because, as a result, it has made him interested in public discourse.

Warren is another part of that, Wessner said. Obama, along with Republican presidential candidate John McCain, attended a candidates’ forum at Warren’s Saddleback Church.

“The megachurches - the Chicago area as well as California - are an important spiritual as well as political arena for a growing number of people,” Wessner said. “And I think that is so because our faith gives us a grounded hope on how to mitigate destructive things in the world and how to grow relational and faithful alternatives.”

Reynolds said more people are turning to their faith in such a challenging time for the country.

“I think that anytime there’s a time of challenge, people revisit or reinvigorate themselves in their faith,” Reynolds said.

The Rev. Dr. Warne B. Dawkins agreed.

“Without fail, when things happen in a community, in a nation, in a country, in a state, it draws people back to a place where they can get help from God,” said Dawkins, of Shiloh Baptist Church in Waynesboro.

Johnson said people in and out of his congregation are hopeful for better times ahead.

“The economy is the question that is on everybody’s mind,” Johnson said. “People are optimistic that it’s going to get better.”

Deeds, Not Just Words

Rhetoric, Johnson said, is one thing, but actions are another.

“We’re not going to make God of the president and expect miracles,” he said.

Wessner said everyone, regardless of his or her beliefs, is called together to make government more humane and compassionate.

“We have a responsibility to collectively work on the democracy,” Wessner said. “And the irony is that we have the capacity to contribute and be the check and balance to that democracy.”
The added irony, Wessner said, “is the democracy only exists if we try to grow that capacity.”

As president, Obama will be called on to lead that effort.

“God will guide our leaders,” Dawkins said. “He allows the strength to go where it is needed.”

Dawkins said no one racial group could have, by itself, gotten Obama elected.

“We as a people - I’m talking about all walks of life - need to bring this country back to unity,” Dawkins said.

Spiritual Guidance

It will be important, Wessner said, for Obama to have a spiritual voice near him to control the ego of the office.

“That’s an absolutely vital voice that helps restrain the egoism of the executive branch, to remind him of the moral issues,” Wessner said. At once, the president has to be both a moral and political leader.

“Our president is unique in that we’re expecting both huge functions out of one person,” Wessner said.

Inaugural Symbolism

Wessner said Obama’s inauguration will be a symbolic event, especially considering its location near where Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and that it comes the day after one set aside to honor the slain civil rights leader.
Obama will not be the first to combine politics with faith, the EMU professor said, but the incoming president will be building on what has been said before.

“The world will watch to see if we do anything with these symbols,” Wessner said.

Jimmy LaRoue and Tony Gonzalez are staff writers for The News Virginian in Waynesboro, Va.


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