Rick 'n Jesus
by Timothy George
Both Billy Graham and Rick Warren are ordained ministers in the Southern Baptist Convention, but their ecumenical import and stature as worldwide ambassadors for Christ have far exceeded their early success as a brash youth evangelist and a colorful church planter. From his base at Saddleback Church in Orange County, California, Warren has garnered great influence as a bestselling author, a crusader against AIDS, and one of the most winsome representatives of the evangelical community in America today. Rick Warren is the new Billy Graham.
This is why Barack Obama invited Warren to offer the prayer of invocation at his presidential inauguration. By any standard, it was a model prayer extolling the virtues of humility, integrity, and generosity and asking for God’s blessings on our new national leader. But then he spoiled all this, some say, by offering his prayer in Jesus’ name, and in four languages at that—Jesus, Jésus, Yeshua, and Isa. This was not the ceremonially correct thing to do, many said, even though Warren made clear that his invocation of Jesus was an expression of personal witness: “I humbly ask this in the name of the One who changed my life.”
Why do some Christians believe it is important to pray in Jesus’ name in public as well as in private? Several years ago I was invited to offer an invocation at a gathering of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, all concerned about issues in the Middle East. My prayer was “ecumenical” in that I thanked God for the many blessings that have flown into the human community from these three faith traditions, but I did end the prayer, as I always do, in the name of Jesus. The Muslims seemed to be all right with this (after all, they say “Praise be upon him” every time the name of Muhammad is mentioned), but one of the Jewish participants—more toward the secular, humanistic end of the spectrum—objected strongly. He complimented the content of my prayer but said he felt uncomfortable and excluded because I concluded my invocation in a uniquely Christian form.
I told him that I was sorry for his discomfort, for that was certainly not my intention. But in interfaith discussions and in public gatherings where prayers are given, it seems more genuine to offer such prayers according to the distinctive rubrics of one’s own faith tradition. I am not sure what the practice is at Harvard Divinity School these days, but, when I was a student there years ago, we prayed together in accordance with the deeply held convictions we each brought to that moment of worship, without any diminution of respect for one another. This reflected a genuine spirit of pluralism where nearly every tradition imaginable, from Buddhism to the Salvation Army, was represented in the student body.
Of course, there are ways for Christians to get around the awkwardness of praying in Jesus’ name in such settings. We can simply say “Amen,” and breathe “in Jesus’ name” silently, under our breath as it were. We can lamely offer our prayer “in your name,” as though God (or we) were confused about who he really is. Or we can try what Robert Jensen calls “syntactically impossible pronominal neologisms,” such as “Godself,” or blander still, appeal to the deconstructed deity invoked by the Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson at the Lincoln Memorial inauguration service: “O God of our many understandings.” Of course, the sovereign Lord can hear and even answer prayers offered in this way, and no doubt he does. It is another question altogether whether Christian ministers should sidestep the scandal of particularity in the interest of making people less uncomfortable.
This has become an issue in the military chaplaincy of late and chaplains are now encouraged “to use the more inclusive language of civic faith” when praying with religiously diverse audiences. Russell Moore points out the difficulty with this approach.
Perhaps it wouldn’t seem too much to ask a Catholic soldier to serve himself and his friends Mass since “bread is bread” and the Muslim chaplain to lead the troops in the rosary because “it’s just a prayer.” But that is too much to ask from the believer’s point of view. A Muslim who would speak of Mary as the Mother of God rejects the Qu’ran, and is just not a Muslim anymore. A Catholic Mass without a priest is just not a Catholic Mass. And a prayer to a “God” who is not clearly the Father of our Lord Jesus is not a Christian prayer.
What is called for, not only by chaplains but all believers who dare to express their faith outside the confines of their mosque, synagogue, or church, is sensitivity without compromise. A few years ago a prominent church leader made a stupid and arrogant statement when he declared, “Almighty God does not hear the prayer of a Jew!” Taken at face value, this statement raises all kinds of questions: What is wrong with the Lord’s auditory capacities? Has God gone partially deaf? Could he not hear the prayers of the Jewish Messiah Jesus? The ugly tone of this statement led to religious sloganeering—a divisive pitting of “us good guys” against “them others.”
But there is another danger equally perilous, though more subtle, in our pluralistic postmodern culture: We may be seduced by a false ecumenism that relativizes all differences among faith perspectives and world religions. In reaction to the violence and distemper we see displayed in so-called fundamentalism (of whatever religious brand), many people are touting a kind of uncritical pluralism that would amalgamate divergent faith traditions into one homogenized whole.
Praying in Jesus’ name at a presidential inauguration is an expression of the free exercise of religion guaranteed to every American in the First Amendment. It no more violates the establishment clause than the fact of the president’s taking his oath of office on the Holy Bible (Abraham Lincoln’s King James Version, in Obama’s case), or the president’s concluding his oath with the words “so help me God.” The doctrine of nonpreferential accommodationism requires, of course, that Jews may invoke the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Muslims the words of Muhammad. It also means that an atheist president can be sworn in on The Humanist Manifesto, and that a Wiccan president can use a Ouija board. But it does not mean that Christians must hide their faith in the inner reserve of their private consciousness. Indeed, they must not do so. For Christians, religious faith is more than what one does with one’s solitude. It is a public declaration to all the world that Jesus Christ is Lord. The one who said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life” was not crucified in private.
Timothy George, a First Things editorial board member, is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and a senior editor of Christianity Today. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared as a January 30, 2009, entry of "On the Square" on the website of First Things (www.firstthings.com).