Inaugural Imbroglio: Controversial Pastor Pulls Out Of Presidential Swearing-In

The presidential inauguration is a governmental event; it need not have religious trappings.

In 2009 when President Barack Obama was first inaugurated, many of us were puzzled as to why he invited the right-wing evangelical pastor Rick Warren to offer the invocation.

As I told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann at the time, Warren is “Jerry Falwell in a Hawaiian shirt.” I expressed dismay that a prominent Religious Right figure was being included in the ceremony and said that after eight years of George W. Bush, we had surely heard enough from that crowd.

If Obama was trying to offer an olive branch to the evangelical right, it didn’t work. Warren turned out to be an embarrassment. His invocation was not inclusive, and since then he’s really gone off the rails. He has unleashed a string of anti-gay statements and now openly accuses Obama of undermining religious liberty because the president happens to believe American workers should have access to health care plans that include contraceptives.

Obama may have been on the verge of making the same mistake.

The president’s team asked the Rev. Louie Giglio, a popular Atlanta minister, to deliver the benediction (closing prayer) during the Jan. 21 inauguration. (The invocation is being delivered by Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of the slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Evers-Williams is not a member of the clergy, and some conservatives are complaining about that – but that’s another story.)

Giglio’s selection was criticized because in the mid-1990s he delivered a sermon that was harshly critical of homosexuality, and it now appears that he has pulled out of the inauguration.

“We must lovingly but firmly respond to the aggressive agenda of not all, but of many, in the homosexual community,” Giglio said during the old sermon. “Underneath this issue is a very powerful and aggressive moment. That movement is not a benevolent movement; it is a movement to seize by any means necessary the feeling and the mood of the day to the point where the homosexual lifestyle becomes accepted as a norm in our society and is given full standing as any other lifestyle, as it relates to family.”

Giglio insisted that being gay is a choice and even recommended controversial “ex-gay” ministries. He added, “Homosexuality is less than God’s best for his creation. It is less than God’s best for us and everything in our lives that is less than God’s best for us and his plan for us and his design for us, is sin.”

This strikes me as a controversy that didn't have to happen. As some commentators have asked, why does Obama keep reaching out to evangelicals when so many of them obviously can’t stand him?

I think this might also be a good time to ask why there are prayers at this event in the first place. A private religious service is always held in conjunction with the inauguration at the Washington National Cathedral. Let the prayers and preachifying take place there. The inauguration is a governmental event; it need not have religious trappings.

And it didn’t used to. As The Washington Post reported today, prayers were added to the festivities in the 1930s. Despite what the Religious Right would have you believe, it’s not like George Washington started these traditions.

As I note in the latest Church & State, nothing in the Constitution requires the use of prayers, the phrase “so help me, God” in the oath or the use of Bibles during the swearing in. These things are traditions, and traditions can be changed.

As America changes -- as our nation becomes more diverse on matters of religion and philosophy and as we seek a country that is truly inclusive and doesn’t relegate anyone to second-class status on the basis of race, creed, gender or sexual orientation – it may be time to reconsider some old practices.

I'm glad Giglio has stepped down. But perhaps in light of this incident, we should step back and examine an overlooked danger of adding religion to civil ceremonies: You might just end up giving a national platform to a divisive zealot.