Thursday, January 24, 2013

Reflections on the 2013 Presidential Inauguration Invocation

On Monday, I watched bits and pieces of Obama’s second inauguration.  I was particularly interested in listening to the public prayers and what they communicate about the spiritual state of our nation and its understanding of religiosity.

Of particular note was the “invocation” delivered by Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers:

Evers-Williams’ selection to lead the invocation was noteworthy for being the first time a non-ordained minister (and a woman?) was chosen to lead the prayer of invocation in a presidential inauguration service.  The choice of a layman to lead a public prayer on such an occasion reflects the de facto egalitarian spirit of our age.  There is to be no distinction between ministers, who have been called, theologically and liturgically trained, and ordained and laymen.

The prayer made news after it was delivered for the fact that Evers-Williams incorrectly identified Obama as the 45th President. Though in his second term, he remains the 44th.  I found it more unusual on several other spiritual points:

First, it began awkwardly without any instruction to the audience that a prayer was being offered (no verbal liturgical cue to the audience, like “Let us pray”).  This is seen in the uncomfortable response of the audience who did not know whether Evers-Williams was offering opening remarks before praying or actually praying.  Should they assume a traditional posture of prayer with eyes closed and heads bowed or keep their eyes open and their posture upright?

Second, the prayer was unusual in that it began without any actual invocation of the Deity and included only a few confusing references to Deity.  In fact, the opening word of the “prayer” was “America.”  Was this a prayer to Deity or to America?  Subsequent calls for blessing were thus confused.  Was she calling on God’s blessings or America’s blessing?  Prayer, by traditional definition, is communication with Deity.  Therefore, prayer typically begins with naming or calling upon the Deity.  This is what the root of the word “invocation” implies, to invoke or call upon the Deity.   Later in the prayer (at 2:49) she does say, “We ask too, Almighty” but, again, the identity of the one invoked is murky.  Evers-Williams’ invocation seemed more like a short speech rather than a prayer.  She invoked “the prayers of our grandmothers” (5:37) who, she says, taught us to pray there is something within us that “holds the reigns” but does not define what that thing is (God?  our own self-determination?).

The absence of reference to Deity seems boldly to be ended in the last line of the prayer as she concludes in more traditional terms, “In Jesus' name….” but then she adds to the name of Jesus “and in the name of all who are holy and right, we pray.”  Who does this include and in whose name is the prayer being offered?  In the name of all righteous religious leaders?  In the name of all righteous Americans?  Finally, this non-traditional prayer did end with the traditional conclusion, “Amen.”

It is interesting to compare and contrast invocations offered at past inaugurations.  Rick Warren offered the invocation at Obama’s first inauguration and whether you liked the prayer (or Warren) or not, it did at least follow a traditional format. More striking is the invocation and benediction offered by Billy Graham (again, like him or not) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton.  Compare:


Tracing the line from Graham to Warren to Evers-Williams is revealing of the spiritual trajectory of the nation.  This 2013 invocation does, indeed, reflects the contemporary spiritual state of our land.  Prayer is now free form speech rather than formal communication.  There is to be no hierarchy in religion and certainly no distinctions made between clergy and laity, men and women.  Prayer is now not only communication with the Deity, but it is also communication with ourselves (autosuggestion) and especially with our better instincts and inclinations.

Perhaps the best thing to come for us as traditional Christians from reviewing and reflecting on this “prayer” is the reminder that we should pray to the triune God of Scripture for our nation and its leaders, and for the church.  While living in the midst of pagan Rome, the apostle Paul exhorted Timothy to pray “for kings and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Tim 2:2).  This seems more and more appropriate to us as time goes by.



Mad Jack said...

That's a good post, Pastor Jeff.

My only thought is that the Lord doesn't stand on ceremony, nor does He stand on eloquence. In the eyes of the Lord we are all equally valuable and equally loved. What a great Lord we have!

All that said, your point about the lack of a prelude of some sort (let us bow our heads in prayer) is well placed. The part that I am concerned about more than a little is the distinct lack of any reference to the Lord as the prayer begins, and a general lack of reference to our Lord during the prayer.

Who, exactly, is she praying to?

Then, as you say, the ending isn't right.

To me, this is our government. This is what it has come to. I'm truly sad.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Good to hear from you again and thanks for the comment.

Agreed, the Lord does not stand on external "ceremony" but looks at the heart. However, he does also prescribe how he desires to be served. Nabad and Abihu paid the price for offering "strange fire" (Lev 10).

Yes, my point was that this was not a conventional prayer, and it did not seem aimed at the triune God of Scripture. It was, thus, a non-Christian prayer. If Jesus is just one holy man among many in whose name we might pray, then it reflects something closer to an Arian or Unitarian view of Jesus.

Yes, it was discouraging. On the other hand, it's a reminder that we don't have Caesar in our back pocket (if we ever did) and our full reliance is on the Lord.