A Transitional and Transcendent Moment

Should the presidential inauguration ceremony include prayers by clergy? Should President-elect Obama say “so help me God” at the end … Continued

Should the presidential inauguration ceremony include prayers by clergy?
Should President-elect Obama say “so help me God” at the
end of his oath of office? Should Chief Justice John Roberts
ask him to?

Presidential inaugurations are transition moments in the life of our nation. They are filled with drama and meaning. Like every transition in life they cry out for a setting that include that which is transcendent and ultimate. In the secular world it is called “ceremony,” In the religious world it is called liturgy. Liturgy has always provided that quality for the crucial transitions of life. That is why liturgies are used at birth (baptism or dedication), at maturity (confirmation, Bar and Bas Mitzvahs), at the union of two people in love (holy matrimony), and at life’s end (various burial traditions). It is therefore appropriate, it seems to me, for the transition moments of a nation to be wrapped in liturgy. That is what prayer at the inaugural and the invocation “So help me, God,” provides.

What is not appropriate in our wondrous multi-cultural nation is for that prayer or the ceremony itself to become an opportunity for sectarian proclamations. Neither the prayer nor the invoking of the name of God should be addressed to a deity in such a way that any American feels not included. The Chief Justice is a Roman Catholic. President Obama has been a member of the United Church of Christ, his father was a Muslim and Jews are members of his administration. All must somehow be included in the liturgical part of the inauguration.

While no human being will ever be able to define the concept with precision, God is nonetheless the end and goal of every human religious system. No tradition, no ecclesiastical institution, no creed and no person can be said to embrace the ultimate truth of God, but all of us seek to walk into that final mystery. A prayer that is broad enough to include all Americans and that forces all into the recognition that each of us is but a small part of the world’s population is certainly appropriate. To be appropriate to all, however, is to be compromising to no one.

I hope those who are invited to provide prayers at inaugural events will understand these things and work within them.

John Shelby Spong
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  • i48998

    Dear Bishop, seems God needs a makeover. I like to call him “One Who Is Above All Else”. That pretty much covers every beings and non-beings.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    If the prayer is a sincere prayer, then I cannot object. But if the prayer is cynical proselytizning propaganda disguiesed as a prayer, or if it is delivered pretenttiously, to demonstrate a sort or Politically Correct adherence to what is proper and acceptable in the eyes of society and man, then I say, “chuck it down the pan.”

  • themoderate

    John,Yawn… You still here? Why not go home and smell the roses while ye may?

  • Paganplace

    The “moderate:””John,” “Yawn… You still here? Why not go home and smell the roses while ye may?”You should be *careful* what oaths you make people swear to, they might just grow an integrity and try to keep them. Even if you decide to ‘demote’ them from the titles you otherwise insist courtesy demands.

  • spencer1

    No adult of sound mind and reasonable intelligence believes in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, or really believes in the existence of supernatural beings. Such a belief in gods is sometimes a pleasant fantasy, and always an unbelievably (pun intended) effective fund raising scheme. Thus an inaugural oath should not refer to nonexistent beings, and is a mistake Obama is free to make, but not wise to make.

  • Counterww

    “No adult of sound mind and reasonable intelligence believes in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, or really believes in the existence of supernatural beings”That is really a hoot. I have meant adults on both sides of the equation – radical atheists and radical evangelical Christians, and BOTH had sound minds and reasonable levels of intelligence. You either are bigoted or don’t get out much.

  • Bios

    Mr. Spong,You may be the most open of all “On Faith” religious panelists and that’s why I read your entries.By the way, isn’t it remarkable that the only user that tries to discredit you at a personal level comes from a brother church?

  • jailkkhosla

    BishopJust in case there are several gods and goddesses is not possible and even dangerous that many if not all of these deities will be displeased and rain havoc on us? Maybe 9/11 and Katrina were the acts of some gods or goddesses who were not happy with Bush praying to the one god he believes in?Methinks Obama should replace the word “God” with gods and goddesses”. Dont you agree?

  • alltogether

    Daniel,

  • garethharris

    Bishop,Despite what they say, it is clear that most people who say they believe in God actually do not, as we can see from their behavior. What they want is affirmation from others that what they have told since infancy is true, when they are afraid that it is actually false. As for needing the endorsement of some Sky Daddy at public observances, that purpose would be served as well by the Tooth Fairy. And as for Jesus, he said don’t pray in public like the hypocrites.IMHO, the Episcopal Church’s main problem is that it is addicted to being part of the public religion establishment. The reason why it has had such trouble standing up for the slave, women, poor, gays and against war, killing, stealing, privilege is that it has never stood up for good when it had a cost. This shows that the god prayed to in public is really the $dollar$. So I believe that going along with meaningless public religion is NOT harmless. It has a price. It costs your heart. For what price will you sell your very self?After all is said and done, a lot more is said than done.

  • giffordpinchot33

    “No tradition, no ecclesiastical institution, no creed and no person can be said to embrace the ultimate truth of God……” Poor Spong. He missed his calling as a clergyman in the Universalist Church. At my Episcopal Church, we bow to a cross at the beginning and end of each service. Jesus Christ alone is our deity, our hope, and our salvation. Long live the king.

  • WestTexan2008

    It may be one of the signs of the Second Coming, but I actually agree with Bp. Spong. Imagine, praying a prayer that as many as possible can respond “Amen.”

  • themoderate

    Friend Pagan Place,”You should be *careful* what oaths you make people swear to, they might just grow an integrity and try to keep them.”I proposed no oath. If I had, you would be right. But I just offered a suggestion that the John might be ready to give it a rest and find better things to do.

  • spencer1

    “I have meant adults on both sides of the equation – radical atheists and radical evangelical Christians, and BOTH had sound minds and reasonable levels of intelligence.” What you really mean is that these adults PROFESS to believe in supernatural beings.

  • dbk1966

    ..but it is a political ceremony, is it not??