Is there a “New revised standard version” of American civil religion emerging? What signs and symbols did you see in the Inauguration?
Presidential inaugural addresses have long been studied to discover the core elements of American civil religion. What did you hear in Barack Obama’s address? Where were you on Inauguration Day?
People gathered in their own way. It certainly depended upon whether or not one had voted for Obama. However, there were differences even among these people. Some held strong beliefs that Barack Obama should not have been elected. Some ignored the inauguration. Some fear his presidency, for a variety of reasons. Some stand ready to critique. I have not heard of people intending to leave the country, but there has been a marked rise in interest in white supremacist groups. There are also large numbers of people who, though not voting for him, think favorable of Obama’s leadership thus far.
Which direction will these opinions and actions go? What opinions are held by people in your faith community? What is the spectrum? How do we talk together about these hopes and fears?
For young, newly engaged people, the energy, the real involvement, the opportunity to participate not only in an election, but in a democracy is exciting. It draws forth commitment. How do leaders of faith communities encourage such participatory democracy, especially among the young? (People of any age?) How does the realization that this is a pluralistic, diverse, multi-cultural, many-storied nation finally bring opportunity for actions of inclusion and cooperation? How can leaders of diverse faith communities encourage such involvement, such ministries in vocations of citizenship in daily life? What are the challenges? The opportunities?
African Americans when asked, almost to a person replied, “I think of my parents, my grandparents." Bill Cosby on Face the Nation said, “I took small pictures of my mother and father and brother, who had died as a child, into the voting booth with me and said, ‘Now we are going to vote.’” He added with his indomitable humor, “I voted only once.” But, the meanings on that voting day and inauguration day were many. The presence of saints from the past was unmistakable. There was quiet calm, thanksgiving, resolution that although surely issues of race, as systemic sin, are not resolved, hatred not ended, and problems not solved, there were new possibilities that few thought would come... at least not this soon.
For me and my husband, who had been active in the Civil Rights movement, Inauguration Day 2009 was a day that moved us almost beyond words. The contrasting images: We lived in the inner city of Detroit during the revolutionary movement (riots) in July of 1967. The hot summer Sunday evening when they started, our 4-year-old son, Mark, and I had just returned from a ride with my husband Burton to a hospital where he was making a pastoral call. Not long after, we heard there were fires in that same area. Soon there was shooting, all over. And more fires. I remember vividly during a TV variety show that evening hearing the singing of, “This Land Is Your Land,” accompanied by colorful pictures of the nation… and with words of warning scrolling across the bottom of the screen: “Curfew is now in place throughout Detroit.” We could now hear the gun fire and smell the smoke close to our house.
And I remember the miles and miles, entire neighborhoods, particularly commercial streets, in flames. I was 8½ months pregnant at the time, and there could be no safe passage to the hospital. Concordia College in Ann Arbor, Michigan, opened its doors for refugees. We gathered neighbors who were willing to go (I understood then the unwillingness to leave one’s home, even in the midst of danger and disaster), and drove out of the city during daylight hours. There were reports of shooting from the overpasses, so we took side streets. Mark and I remained in Ann Arbor for a few days, while Burton and others tried to watch over the neighborhood around the church at night.
But in a few days we returned. The new turquoise checked curtains I had recently sewn for our kitchen were bright as ever. The laundry I had been gathering on that Monday morning we left was still piled near the washing machine. And the riots went on, and on and on. I recall how national news announced things were calm and it was all over, but guns outside told me differently. And the guns were aimed at us. At the people. The National Guard and Army troops were called in to protect the large financial institutions and departments stores.
And I heard again in my mind, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California, to..”
Joel, still in the womb, was due in August, but didn’t arrive until September 8. His birth story goes that he wasn’t so sure he wanted to come into this world. But he did, and is now a leader himself, building community through music.
And that September, just a week after giving birth, my days as a community organizer began…
Today, how beyond words, to hear Pete Seeger leading the huge gathering at the Lincoln Memorial the Sunday evening before Inauguration Day 2009, in “This Land Is Your Land…” The Memorial to Lincoln, where in 1939 Marian Anderson sang, and where in 1963 Martin Luther King preached, and where Barack and Michelle Obama took their daughters to trace the words of the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural on the marble. One girl asked, “How are we doing?” with living out those words.
There are ironies, of course, and new exclusions. Bishop Gene Robinsons’ prayer, at the beginning of that same concert where Pete Seeger sang, was not heard by television audiences, even as Pete, slipped back in the original words from that Woodie Guthrie song that had been censored, banned years before. The challenges to be the beloved community (Dr. King’s phrase) continue.
In my view some of the most significant words of the day were delivered in the benediction given by Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery, himself a Civil Rights leader. Many people on the Mall had begun to leave after Obama’s inauguration. (And who could blame them? They had been standing in bitter cold weather for hours.) Therefore they missed what we through television could see and hear. The prayer was noted on the news for its light-hearted conclusion (even Obama smiled). It’s telling that we can now hear these words as somewhat humorous; during the Civil Rights Movement they were a pledge, a commitment, a dream.
Dr. Lowery began the prayer with the final verse of what is known as the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
Shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.”
Dr. Lowery prayed for God’s blessing upon God’s servant, Barack Obama, his family and the administration who come to this high office at this low moment.
Because we know you have whole world in your hands, We pray for our land and the community of nations. You are able and willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability,
mend our brokenness, heal our wounds, deliver us from exploitation of the poor or the least of these, and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these. We thank you for the inspiring of our 44th president to inspire our nation that yes we can work together to achieve a more perfect union. We have sown seeds of greed and corruption. We seek forgiveness, and come in a spirit of unity and solidarity with a willingness to make sacrifices, respect creation, and turn to each other and not on each other. Help us to make choices on the side of love not hate, inclusion, not exclusion, tolerance, not intolerance. As we leave this mountain top, let us hold on to spirit of fellowship. and take that spirit back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, temples, and mosques… We go now to walk together pledging we won’t get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone with your hands of power and your heart of love. Help us work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. In the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around,when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all who do justice and love mercy say Amen. Amen. Amen.