The President’s Pastor Problem

President Barack Obama will formally begin his second term next Sunday, January 20, and on the following day the nation will mark his second inauguration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.

While provisions for the ceremony have largely proceeded according to plan, the administration ensnared itself into one significant controversy by, for the second time, hiring a radioactive clergyman to perform the pageant’s benediction.

In this case, the pastor in question is a gentleman by the name of Louie Giglio, an evangelical from Georgia best known as the founder of the Passion Movement, an extremely well-attended getup that holds conferences and events throughout the country.  Giglio has been roundly praised for drawing attention to the horrors of human trafficking.

However, upon the announcement of Giglio’s participation in Monday’s festivities, he became equally known for having delivered a sermon in the 1990s in which he condemned homosexuality in no uncertain terms, calling it “less than God’s best for his creation,” and assailed the gay rights movement as having an “aggressive agenda […] to seize by any means necessary the feeling and the mood of the day, to the point where the homosexual lifestyle becomes accepted as a norm in our society and is given full standing as any other lifestyle, as it relates to family.”

While the latter portion of this thought is undoubtedly true, various gay rights organizations did not care for the pastor’s tone and applied pressure on the Presidential Inaugural Committee to rescind its invitation to Giglio, who swiftly withdrew from the program in the interests of not being a distraction.  The Inaugural Committee, for its part, said it had been unaware of the dicey sermon when it selected Giglio for the Inauguration Day gig.

Predictably—and in light of the similar spectacle of Rick Warren at the 2009 inauguration—many on the left excoriated Obama for again anointing such a divisive figure to the ostensibly unifying role of wishing the president and the country well.  What, they ask, is so terribly difficult in finding a member of the clergy who does not have a record of public condemnation toward gays or any other group?

For me, however, the real question is the one nobody seems to be asking:  Why does the inauguration of the president include a benediction in the first place?

The United States, one must never tire of saying, is a secular country bound by a secular constitution.  We have no official state religion, and our founding documents’ only mention of religious faith is to limit its role in the public square.

We rightly prohibit religious displays on all public property, mandating that the freedom of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment is the business of individuals and private organizations, not the government.  The right to worship includes the right not to worship as well.  As far as the government is concerned, no particular faith is superior to any other, and none at all shall be observed or practiced on the proverbial public dime.

The inclusion of a clergyman invoking religious language in a foundational American public exercise such as a presidential inauguration—as has occurred at every such ceremony since 1937—would seem to be a textbook violation of this most sacred of national principles.

Even when rejecting this whole premise—as the present administration evidently does—one need not expend any effort whatever in examining why the task of locating a preacher with an unblemished record of inclusion is a troublesome one.

Churches are, by their very nature, exclusionary.  To believe in one god is to reject all the others.  As Richard Dawkins cheekily put it, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in.  Some of us just go one god further.”

There is very little, if anything, that all of America’s houses of worship agree on.  Accordingly, anything that one priest, rabbi or imam says that is particular to his or her own faith is destined to offend adherents of other faiths, not to mention some within the speaker’s own church.

Should a religious leader manage an entire address without inciting umbrage from a sizable chunk of the public, he or she does so through an appeal to a common humanism, which only further suggests that said speaker need not be associated with a religious organization.

Why do we need our national quadrennial transfer of power to be “blessed”?  Why invite such controversy to a setting in which it is not welcome and does not belong?  Constitutional questions aside, is it really worth all the trouble?

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