Today, at noon, President Obama was sworn in for a second term in the Blue Room of the White House. Tomorrow there will be a public ceremony on the steps of the Capitol. Today is Sunday and there is a tradition going back to 1821 that when Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday, the public festivities are delayed until Monday. The last time this happened was with the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan in 1984. The origins of this, of course, are to respect the Christian Sabbath although President Monroe, whose inauguration it was in 1821, was only nominally a Christian, being—like Jefferson, Madison, and probably Washington—a Deist, something more akin to today’s Unitarian.
As far as I could tell there was no prayer in today’s official swearing-in. Tomorrow there will be both an invocation and a benediction. The invocation, or opening prayer, will be given not by a member of the clergy but by Myrlie Evers-Williams who was the widow of Medgar Evers, the civil-rights leader whose 1963 murder in Jackson Mississippi became part of the plot to the popular novel, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett. The Benediction will be given by the Reverend Luis Leon, Rector of the Episcopal Church of Saint John, Lafayette Square—the so-called “Church of the Presidents” just across Lafayette Square from the White House. The Obamas are not regular Church attenders as were the Clintons and the Carters though they do attend more often than the Reagans or even the Bushes. Saint John’s tends to be the default Church more often chosen than other houses of worship. Other than a funeral the President has not opted to worship in a Catholic Church since becoming President but then, since he would not be welcome at Holy Communion, I can understand why.
Supposedly the President wanted the opening prayer to be led by someone other than a member of the clergy and thus Mrs. Evers-Williams was invited. Good choice by the way. Initially the Reverend Louie Giglio, pastor of Atlanta’s Passion City Church had been invited to give the closing prayer, but when some anti-gay remarks were discovered in a twenty-year old sermon, Dr. Leon was named to replace him. Now, both Luis Leon and Louie Giglio should be Catholic names—that is a topic for some future blogs but right now we will let it pass.
All this indicates, I believe, that despite their occasional episodes of public worship, President Obama and his family represent the casual approach towards Christian fellowship that is becoming more and more common in our culture. This is not a criticism, just an observation. The First Family does not currently have a church membership. Worship seems to be something that they do “when they need it” and somewhat like the modern hybrid cars who make less frequent trips to the gas station than our old traditional gas-guzzlers, modern Americans—like the Obamas—“fill ‘er up” somewhat infrequently, having other sources of energy. Of course this contemporary piety (or lack thereof) is based on the idea that worship is something we do for spiritual energy rather than a duty we have towards our Creator. It is all part of the radical subjectivism that is pac-manning our “culture.” On the other hand, Vice-President Biden and his wife are, I understand, faithful Mass-goers to the annoyance of the Pharisee party in the Catholic Church and the bewilderment of most fellow-liberals who don’t quite know what to make of believing Catholics. But then Jefferson and Franklin admired the Carrolls but were bewildered by their attachment to our anti-Enlightenment faith.
Where do we go with this? Nowhere in particular. Just read the signs of the times. Protestant clergy with name like Luis Leon and Louie Giglio; Catholic Chief-Justices swearing in thoroughly secularized Presidents; Liberal Democrats attending Mass without qualms of conscience; laity replacing clergy in leading prayer; public prayer being reduced to the inoffensive and politically correct; and what else might I be missing? It is a new world and we have no choice but to adapt to it and devise a thoroughly new strategy of evangelizing in this post-Christian culture. Don’t waste your time crying over spilt holy water—the time for that is past. This is the time to ask the Holy Spirit’s Guidance on how to bring the Gospel alive in this brave new but vapid world.