Gladys Moore on Religion and the Inauguration

Tuesday, January 20, 2009 - 12:00

Questioning Authority checked in with Gladys Moore, dean of religious and spiritual life and director of diversity and inclusion, for her views on the role of religion in the inauguration. Here’s what she had to say:

QA: What role should religion play in a presidential inauguration? Does it raise any problem with the constitutional separation of church and state? Is there a problem having Christianity represented to the exclusion of other religions?

GM: What an awesome experience it is to watch from afar as the first African American and forty-fourth president of the United States prepares to take the oath of office on January 20.

While President-elect Obama’s inauguration has captured the hearts, minds, and bodies of millions around the globe, it has also raised anew some questions about constitutional ideals that U.S. citizens hold dear, such as the so-called separation of church and state.

The First Amendment separation of church and state was never explicitly spelled out. Rather the amendment opened the door to the free establishment of religion and prevented the government from forcing the practice of any particular religious tradition or indeed, any religion at all, upon its citizens. Thus, the question of what role religion should play in a presidential inauguration seems to be entirely dependent upon what role religion plays in the life of the president-elect.

With the exception of three U.S. presidents whose religious and denominational affiliation was undeclared, the remaining 41 presidents, including President-elect Obama, have belonged to a variety of Christian or Unitarian Universalist churches.

Perhaps a better question is, “How does an increasingly pluralistic U.S. society interpret the overwhelmingly Christian presence that has been evident throughout the days of inaugural celebrations?” While the main clergy speakers at Obama's inauguration will be Christian, the national prayer service the next day at the National Cathedral will also include its first-ever woman preacher, the Rev. Sharon Watkins, a Muslim, three rabbis, and likely the Catholic Archbishop of Washington, D.C.

Nevertheless our incoming presidential administration will have much work to do in expanding the tables of dialogue to include those numerous faith and humanist traditions to which our country’s residents adhere. To me, what we attempt to lift up at Mount Holyoke, through our Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, is a vision of what a multifaith, multicultural, increasingly diverse U.S. society should look like.

QA: What do you think of Obama's choice of Rick Warren, California megachurch pastor and opponent of gay marriage, to deliver the inaugural invocation? Should gay rights advocates be concerned that it signifies something about Obama's views on gay rights?

GM: President-elect Obama’s selection of the evangelical pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration and of openly gay Episcopal bishop Eugene Robinson to offer the invocation at Sunday’s inaugural opening festivities is an example of the new president’s commitment to dialogue across difference. Even before he was the president-elect, Senator Obama made clear his commitment to expanding the tent of public conversation to be inclusive of varying perspectives.

Indeed, Barack Obama’s acceptance speech on election night gave yet another glimpse into his appreciation for the creative tension that is sometimes born of radically different viewpoints and backgrounds. He pledged to listen to the American people, especially when we disagreed with his policies and practices. And there are plenty of people from both ends of the spectrum of many faiths who have disagreed with his choices. As for me, I agree with what Dr. Diana Eck of the Harvard Pluralism Project said. Namely, that “first, pluralism is not diversity alone, but the energetic engagement with diversity.” President-elect Obama’s energetic engagement with diversity is a good model of what the rest of us in the U.S. should practice both now and in the years to come.

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