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The role of religion under Obama

Wednesday's National Prayer Service featured an array of faith leaders, as Democrats aim for inclusiveness and a fuller religious voice.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 22, 2009

Inaugural capstone: The Obamas, Bidens, and Clintons were at Washington National Cathedral Jan. 21 for a prayer service.

Charles Dharapak/AP



After decades of ceding God to the GOP, at least in the public square, Democrats – with President Obama in the lead – are speaking with a fuller religious voice. The watchword? Inclusiveness.

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It's a voice that signals openness at a time when diversity in American religious life is rising.

"We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers," Mr. Obama said in Tuesday's inaugural address.

Wednesday's National Prayer Service, a tradition since George Washington's inauguration, featured faith leaders chosen "to symbolize America's traditions of religious tolerance and freedom," said the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee. It included, for the first time, a sermon delivered by a woman.

For Obama, the broad outreach into the faith community isn't confined to ceremonies but is emerging as a key element in his approach to coalition-building, say religious leaders who worked on the transition.

"Barack Obama is himself a person of faith, but he also believes that the faith community has a real role to play in creating the kind of social change we need now," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, president of Sojourners, a network of Christian social activists.

Indeed, religious groups have been broadly advising the Obama transition team on issues ranging from poverty to criminal justice to foreign policy. "To move from a consuming, polluting, poverty-creating economy to one that conserves, is a good steward of the environment, and focuses on bringing people out of poverty, that's more than a structural crisis, it's a spiritual one," says Mr. Wallis.

Obama's predisposition to stake a big tent that includes a broad range of faith traditions has been evident early.

Who leads the prayers at presidential inaugurations is usually about as controversial as whether to put an American flag near the podium. Preachers such as Billy Graham typically struck a broad, ecumenical tone acceptable to a wide range of religious adherents.

Not so this inaugural cycle. Obama's choice of the Rev. Rick Warren – a popular Evangelical who has campaigned against gay marriage – to deliver the inaugural invocation riled many liberals. Obama's subsequent invitation to V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, fired up the other end of the religious spectrum.

"Bless this nation with anger: anger at discrimination at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people," said the Right Rev. Robinson at Sunday's opening of inaugural ceremonies.

Obama's choice of two spiritual leaders with such distinct and controversial views signals that differences are not to be avoided but are an essential part of the conversation.