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Obama's Interfaith Score Card

Obama gets a "B" for his first interfaith outing. Not bad for a beginner, so let's give him an "A" for effort.
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Obama gets a "B" for his first interfaith outing. Not bad for a beginner, so let's give him an "A" for effort.

First, let's look at the things he did right. The service at the National Cathedral was the first real religiously plural function of its kind. He included a Muslim voice (Dr. Ingrid Mattson of the Islamic Society of North America), in spite of attacks by the marginal but vocal Jewish right wing. This will allow (yes, allow) more moderate Jewish leaders to work with a wider range of Muslim citizens.

A point less noticed was his progressive move to have a woman Muslim leader. He also included a Hindu, again a woman. Dr. Uma Mysorekar (president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America) recently participated in a press conference with Hasidic Jews and Muslims in response to the Mumbai massacre, and invited Muslims to her prayer service directly after 9/11. These were the right choices, not only to symbolize gender equality, but to show the value of lay leadership within these religious communities.

He also was good to have Jews and Christians from many denominations, demonstrating an awareness that a single Jewish or Christian leader cannot possibly represent all Jews or Christians (as the Rick Warren debacle aptly demonstrated).

The reality of only one Muslim with so many doubles in the other Abrahamic faiths is understandable, in terms of numbers and precedent, but it's important to see why it is still a problem. Shia an Sunni Muslims kill each other daily in Iraq. African American Muslims make up the majority of Muslims in America, and yet are regularly sidelined at such events. Our understanding of Islam as a single community, who Obama spoke to in his address, continues to perpetuate this illusion. But it was a good start. Most Muslims are happy with his choice.

On the Jewish front, things get a bit complicated. Of course it was good to get an Orthodox rabbi there. It does proves that all interfaith events are not equal in the eyes of God, because no other interfaith organizer could have gotten an Orthodox Rabbi, let alone the one with the gravitas of Rabbi Haskel Lookstine to pray alongside a Hindu in a church. The rule of not entering a church (to many statues and false gods, a blurring of the religions) it seems can be broken when the moment is right.

Most will say that the orthodox should loosen up, and perhaps this event will precipitate loosening. Lookstine's explanation that it was a civic duty is interesting. Was this a religious event, or a civic, and therefore secular one. Where is the line between secular, civic, and religious for such an occasion in an nation that separates church and state?

However this is answered, the very fact that the service took place in a church, called the National Cathedral, and followed a Christian liturgical structure (and that the inauguration was also framed by Christian blessings) reminds us that we live in a nation that is, however religiously plural, institutionally, or at least civically, framed by Christianity. One could ask why such a service couldn't take place in a neutral location, if our constitution calls for no establishment and equal freedom?

So why only a B? There were two major gaffs. First, a Christian leader told a Cherokee story. It is about time that Native Americans speak for themselves, choose which stories to tell, and are not represented by the faith that nearly whipped them out.

Second, Obama, like Giuliani after 9/11 at the Yankee Stadium service, left the Buddhists out. During his inaugural address he also left them out. Buddhists dominate the population of East Asia, and represent the religion of non-violent noble prize winners like the Dalai Lama and Aung Sang Su Ki. A Buddhist would have offered a moment of silence from a tradition that sees inner peace as central to any form of outward peace.

It may seem a small matter, but when you include the absence of Sikhs (not to mention Native Americans, Jains, Zorastrians, and African based religions) when there were so many duplicates of other faiths, it is clear that there is room from improvement.

And that's what a "B" gets you: solid work, and a need for improvement (at least in the pre-grade inflation days that plague institutions like Harvard).


Matthew Weiner is the program director at the Interfaith Center of New York, and is writing a book about Interfaith in New York.