Obama, Inaugural Prayers and the Evangelicals Who Don't Love Him

LAKE FOREST, CA - AUGUST 16:  Pastor Rick Warren (R) and presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Barack Obama
LAKE FOREST, CA - AUGUST 16: Pastor Rick Warren (R) and presumptive Democratic Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) join hands during the Civil Forum on the Presidency at the Saddleback Church August 16, 2008 in Lake Forest, California. In the first joint appearance of candidates, Obama and Presumptive Republican Presidential candidate U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) participated in a town hall style meeting moderated by the Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, who leads the fourth-largest church in the nation. Each candidate was questioned, separately, about issues of poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate and human rights. Neither candidate was allowed to hear the responses of the other. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

UPDATE: Rev. Louie Giglio has withdrawn from the inauguration amid questions about an anti-gay sermon he gave in the mid-1990s. He gave this statement: "Clearly, speaking on this issue has not been in the range of my priorities in the past fifteen years. Instead, my aim has been to call people to ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ."

Four years ago, President Obama picked Pastor Rick Warren to offer the invocation at his presidential inauguration. Warren was at the apex of his influence in 2009, having hosted then-candidates Barack Obama and John McCain for a conversation dubbed The Saddleback Civil Forum on Presidency.

After Obama won the presidency he held out an olive branch to the group that had most opposed his candidacy, white evangelicals, by asking their most visible leader to offer the most important prayer in the nation.

This stung many in the coalition of voters, religious and non-religious, who had elected the president -- especially those who supported gay equality. Rick Warren had sent out an email to the Saddleback Church urging his congregation to support Proposition 8 aimed at prohibiting gay marriage. And the month before the inauguration, Warren responded to a question on gay marriage from Steve Waldman, then editor in chief of Beliefnet.com by comparing it to incest or pedophilia saying:

I'm opposed to redefinition of a 5,000 year definition of marriage. I'm opposed to having a brother and sister being together and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage.

Although there was quite an uproar, the Obama team stuck to their choice and Rick Warren offered the inaugural prayer. Unfortunately, the hoped for rapprochement never came as white evangelicals continued their suspicion and hostility towards the president, again overwhelmingly voting against him in 2012. And in a recent interview with The Huffington Post, Rick Warren claimed that the president was "absolutely" unfriendly to religion.

Facing another inauguration, the White House released the names of the people entrusted to pray for all of us. The choice to give the invocation was Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, and a surprising and inspired pick as the first non-clergy and the first woman to have the honor.

The choice for who would deliver the benediction has again raised concerns and questions about the sensibilities and motivations of the White House.

Rev. Louie Giglio, the conservative evangelical pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta has been tapped for the honor. Rev. Giglio is to be admired for his tireless organizing against human trafficking, which is an issue that has galvanized many evangelicals, and accepted the offer from the White House with grace saying: "During these days it is essential for our nation to stand together as one."

Yet today a sermon by Rev. Giglio has surfaced, apparently from the '90s, in which Obama's choice for the "final good word" attacks gay people, saying they will be prevented from "entering the Kingdom of God' and also that the "only way out of a homosexual lifestyle... is through the healing power of Jesus.'

This is not such a big surprise. It would be hard to find an evangelical in America who didn't preach against gay people, especially as far back as the '90s. I guess the wider question is why does Obama insist on entrusting a representative of this group with this high honor in the first place? White evangelicals seem unlikely to change their opinion of the president, regardless of who is praying at his inauguration. Why try to build a bridge that will lead to nowhere?

At the same time, those who did support the president, and who, like the president have evolved in their faith enough to support the full humanity and dignity of LGBT people, again feel slighted by the president's choice.

On the day when the National Cathedral has announced that gay people can be married in its sanctuary, it seems discordant to invite someone to pray who is on the record as condemning gay people to hell.

But perhaps it is this unquenchable hope for reconciliation that is the trait that is most to be admired in President Obama. On the night he was reelected, President Obama offered these words:

I have always believed that hope is that stubborn thing inside us that insists, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that something better awaits us so long as we have the courage to keep reaching, to keep working, to keep fighting.

The president may be right. Hopefully as people of all faith and no faith continue to work together to solve the problems of our world we will grow together in understanding and respect. While today I feel anger, I know that for us to have a future as a nation we need to come together across differences, recognizing that the arc of the universe really does bend towards justice. The Inauguration on January 21st may be the next step in our national journey of reconciliation and redemption of all people.

That will be my prayer.

Inauguration Invocations