Prayer as political pageantry

Screen-Shot-2013-01-12-at-11_57_55-AMA quick unpacking of the political/cultural symbolism of the prayers offered at the second Obama inauguration:

The invocation came from Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers. Symbolic resonances not only with Obama’s landmark status as the country’s first black president, but also with the Martin Luther King holiday. Our friends at Wikipedia tell me she’s the first woman to offer the invocation at an inauguration–I’m not entirely sure if that means she’s the first woman to pray at an inauguration, period. If not, I’m curious to know who preceded her. Reportedly, she’s also the first layperson to pray at an inauguration. Democracy’s a bit slow to infiltrate American civil religion in that regard, it seems.

The benediction was supposed to have been given by Louie Giglio, a southern evangelical; that looks to me like an effort to repeat the bridge-building gesture of having Rick Warren pray at the first inauguration. Like Warren, however, Giglio became a focus of criticism from gay rights advocates; unlike Warren, Giglio withdrew. (How unilateral was that decision, I wonder?)

So the benediction was actually given by Luis Leon, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal in Washington DC., a.k.a. the “Church of the Presidents.” Episcopalian is as close as you get to an established church in this country–but ah!, what a twist, he’s Latino. He threw a line of Spanish into the prayer: the God of American civil religion is officially bilingual. For the first time at an inauguration?

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