American civil religion is always exemplified in presidential inaugurals. Typically the selection of clergy for inaugural prayers has not been controversial. But amid culture war of recent years and secularization of America’s elites, plus the implosion of once predominant Mainline Protestantism in favor of evangelicals, inaugurations have more recently showcased the nation’s religious and moral divisions. Franklin Graham excited controversy at President George W. Bush’s 2000 inaugural for praying in the name of Christ. Rick Warren provoked protest at President Barack Obama’s first inaugural, having publicly backed California’s Proposition 8 defining marriage as man and woman.
This year the Obama Administration initially picked for the benediction Atlanta-based evangelical pastor Louie Giglio, a seemingly safe choice, better known for his widely popular “Passion” ministry for victims of sex trafficking than for hot button cultural war stances. Early this month his Passion conference in Atlanta attracted over 60,000, mostly college students. But within two days of his January 8 selection, Giglio was forced to step aside, LGBT and other liberal groups having protested a sermon from the 1990s in which Giglio disapproved of homosexual practice. Breaking the news first was a blog associated with John Podesta’s Center for American Progress. The initial “New York Times” story, later amended, said Giglio withdrew by the Administration’s request. Giglio declined to say. The inaugural committee explained that Giglio failed to live up to the Administration’s vision for “diversity.”
Prominent evangelicals have complained that this vision of “diversity” would exclude virtually all evangelicals, plus Roman Catholic clergy, and traditionalists from almost any major religious tradition. “The imbroglio over Louie Giglio is the clearest evidence of the new Moral McCarthyism of our sexually ‘tolerant’ age,” pronounced Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, the nation’s largest seminary. “The Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House have now declared historic, biblical Christianity to be out of bounds, casting it off the inaugural program as an embarrassment.”
Mohler warned: “By its newly articulated standard, any preacher who holds to the faith of the church for the last 2,000 years is persona non grata. By this standard, no Roman Catholic prelate or priest can participate in the ceremony. No Evangelical who holds to biblical orthodoxy is welcome. The vast majority of Christians around the world have been disinvited. Mormons, and the rabbis of Orthodox Judaism are out. Any Muslim imam who could walk freely in Cairo would be denied a place on the inaugural program. Billy Graham, who participated in at least ten presidential inaugurations, is welcome no more. Rick Warren, who incited a similar controversy when he prayed at President Obama’s first inauguration, is way out of bounds. In the span of just four years, the rules are fully changed.”
Prominent Catholic ethicist Robert George of Princeton University, in a column with Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore, wrote that “no one is arguing that Evangelicals or Catholics or anyone else must have a designated slot on the dais.” But he complained: “The end result of the sexual revolution is that those who see marriage as a conjugal relationship — the union of husband and wife — and believe sexual conduct outside the marital bond to be morally unworthy, will come to be viewed as bigots, the equivalent of racists.” Like Mohler, he warned of “dire implications for religious liberty and freedom of conscience.”
The Presidential Inaugural Committee promised after the Giglio controversy that “we now work to select someone to deliver the benediction, [and] we will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.” Keeping their promise, they chose Episcopal clergy Luis Leon of historic St. John’s Church next to the White House. Mostly low key, Leon supports his denomination’s pro-LGBT stance and backed same-sex marriage in Washington, D.C. He prayed at Bush’s 2005 inauguration. His prayer this time cited "gay and straight" and avoided mentioning Christ.
Meanwhile, prominent United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton of Kansas City was picked to sermonize at the inaugural National Cathedral interfaith service that the Obamas will attend Tuesday, the day after the inauguration. Last year, Hamilton unsuccessfully urged his denomination formally to acknowledge disagreement over its teaching that sex is exclusively for heterosexual marriage. Also speaking will be a clergywoman from the predominantly homosexual Metropolitan Community Church denomination. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, a strong LGBT advocate, also will speak. Retiring Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, whose 2003 election as the Episcopal Church’s first openly homosexual bishop created schism in the global Anglican Communion, apparently is not on the service agenda. But he tweeted that President Obama had invited him to the presidential viewing stand for the inaugural parade, where he’ll be “practicing my queenly wave for all my LGBT friends!” In retirement, Robinson is relocating from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C., where he already serves as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the same group whose blog first challenged Giglio’s 17-year-old sermon.
Unlike 2008, the 2012 Obama campaign made virtually no outreach to evangelicals, accurately realizing they could win without them. Obamacare’s contraceptive/abortifacient mandate on religious institutions, plus stances on same sex marriage and abortion, have perturbed many evangelicals, Catholics, and other religious traditionalists. The Giglio imbroglio almost certainly will further estrange the Administration from many religious communities. And it will be remembered as one more landmark signifying that even benign rites of civil religion, once unifying, have become increasingly contentious.