Inaugural Benedictions and the Christian Default Setting

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 11, 2013 — 11 Comments

On Tuesday the Obama Administration revealed that they had picked evangelical Christian Pastor Louis Giglio to give the benedition at President Obama’s second inauguration. Giglio had been picked for his work combatting human trafficking, and as a symbolic outreach to a religious community that overwhelmingly voted against Obama’s re-election (much in the same way Rick Warren was tapped to give the invocation four years earlier). However, on Wednesday the blog ThinkProgress did a bit of background work and found a virulently anti-gay sermon Giglio gave back in the 1990s, creating controversy for an administration that had campaigned on LGBT rights and equality. 

Pastor Louie Giglio

Pastor Louis Giglio

“The 54-minute sermon, entitled “In Search of a Standard – Christian Response to Homosexuality,” advocates for dangerous “ex-gay” therapy for gay and lesbian people, references a biblical passage often interpreted to require gay people be executed, and impels Christians to “firmly respond to the aggressive agenda” and prevent the “homosexual lifestyle” from becoming accepted in society.”

By Thursday Giglio had been removed from the program, with most outlets reporting that he had voluntarily stepped down. In the eye-blink between announcement and withdrawal Huffington Post Senior Religion Editor Paul Brandeis Raushenbush asked why Obama continues to try and woo a religious demographic that seems to have its mind made up concerning this president.

“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?”

Which lead to the perhaps inevitable lists of Christians who affirm gay relationships that could replace Pastor Giglio. Thankfully, ThinkProgress, at the end of their “who could replace Giglio” post, gets to a very salient point: why does it have to be a Christian at all?

Someone who isn’t Christian – Although a variety of religious voices have been represented in presidential inaugurations in years past (Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, for example, featured a prayer from Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk), more recent inauguration ceremonies have privileged Christian voices. With this in mind, the Inaugural committee would do well to consider picking someone more representative of America’s religious diversity. Possible candidates could include Rabbi Denise Eger, Muslims such as interfaith activist Eboo Patel, or any number of representatives from the Sikh community, just to name a few.”

This simple and obvious point is so rarely spoken when people cover the intersections of religion and politics that I blush at how excited I got when I finally heard it uttered (well, typed, but you get the picture). Far too often when people talk about the “Religious Right” in this country they try to counter it with an (equally Christian) “Religious Left” (which has its own problems). It pits a “lefty” Jesus against a “righty” Jesus in a debate over important moral and religious issues that potentially affect Americans of all beliefs (or no beliefs). It’s a Christian default setting that immediately places all non-Christians on a different tier, feeding off the scraps thrown to us by those who shape our country’s narrative.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu to seve in Congress.

This election was supposed to herald the “end of a white Christian strategy” in national politics, it was an election that saw all those demographic chickens starting to come home to roost. Our Congress now has Buddhists, Muslims, a Hindu, and a “none” among its ranks. If ever there was a time to symbolically show that evangelical Christians don’t have to be exclusively catered to, this is the moment. Or, you could simply wash your hands of the whole affair and make the inaugural ceremony a purely secular event once more.

“As The Washington Post reported today, prayers were added to the festivities in the 1930s. Despite what the Religious Right would have you believe, it’s not like George Washington started these traditions. As I note in the latest Church & State, nothing in the Constitution requires the use of prayers, the phrase “so help me, God” in the oath or the use of Bibles during the swearing in. These things are traditions, and traditions can be changed. As America changes — as our nation becomes more diverse on matters of religion and philosophy and as we seek a country that is truly inclusive and doesn’t relegate anyone to second-class status on the basis of race, creed, gender or sexual orientation – it may be time to reconsider some old practices.”

I agree with Rob Boston at Americans United, it is time to reconsider our old practices and either become truly diverse at ceremonial state functions, or leave the prayers to religious gatherings. The Christian default setting must end, and now is the time to end it.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Hecate_Demetersdatter

    There is no reason to drag religion into a civil ceremony. The Inauguration is not a religious ceremony. Separation of church and state would be best served by keeping the Inauguration civil and secular. That said, I do like the practice of appointing a poet to compose a poem for the occasion and Obama’s choice this year is a good one. I’ve written more about him over at my blog.

    • Dawn

      I’d like to read that. Link, please?

  • R.M. McGrath

    When you criticize the “Religious Left” keep in mind that it’s not just “progressive Christians” who may or may not be welcoming to LGBT, but also Unitarian Universalists (who may or may not be ‘religious’, but who generally support both inclusivity and leftist politics), progressive/liberal Quakers, and even leftist Pagans who believe their religion inspires them to be progressive, to be inclusive, and to be support of things like the environment, LGBT and other social justice issues.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    On grounds of pure principle I agree with you, Jason, but I can’t forget how moved I was at Obama’s first inaugural when Rev. Laurie picked the last verse of the black hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the opening to his benediction.

  • Ursyl

    For years, I’ve been saying that Christianity is not the default from which all other faiths/philosophies are deviations. One of my friends thinks that means I hate Christianity. I roll my eyes.

    It’s kind of nice to see that equality coming to reality, however slowly, though we are not there yet.

  • Greenflame

    What can we do? I.e., to whom would we address objections?

    • Charles Cosimano

      No one because no one who makes those decisions would listen.

  • Knowershark

    Christianity has become the ultimate weapon of control. Whoever is in power can use its contradictory teachings for whatever is needed. Selectively choosing verses or groups to prop up any agenda while maintaining servility, loyalty and standardization. Religion or ancient law codes?

    • Deborah Bender

      What you are describing is the way most religions operate when they are hegemonic in a society.

  • John W. Morehead

    This post, on many levels, screams out for the need of the perspective of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, and the work and perspective in the public square and among Evangelicals for our work in dialogue and civil contestation. There are different Evangelicals.

  • Karola Spring

    I wish the President would place his or her hand on the Consitution rather then the Bible or someother religious text.