Leave it to an atheist to comment on the words of prayer offered at the beginning and end of today's inauguration of Brack Obama. But the contrast presented by the invocation given by mega-church founder, Rick Warren, and the benediction delivered by civil rights champion, Joseph Lowery, have called me to this bully pulpit
First I should say that I respect Barack Obama's decision to select Warren for the opening prayer. I think that it is a calculated, but not insincere, effort on his part to broaden his base of support in anticipation of the challenges he will face in advancing a sweeping legislative agenda. Obama is serious about doing more than just paying lip service to the word inclusion.
What was disappointing in Warren's speech was not its politics but its mediocrity. From all appearances he is no orator. To make matters worse, the content was bland, as though the ideas had been run by some sort of focus-group resulting in a string of clichés designed not to offend.
Lowery, on the other hand, generated a sense of drama even as he approached the podium. The rumble of his voice and the gradually rising intensity of his delivery were worthy of an Old Testament prophet. Here was a master of speaking, using the cadence of his words and strains of both pain and humor to "say well" for his country and its new president. Lowery's message was one of the truth of a life well-lived, inspiring both hope and, suitably, awe.
Warren, an emissary from Sarah Palin's "real" America, had offered a prayer that would do well in a suburban mega-church. It was anodyne and unchallenging. Lowery, a representative of the multi-cultural America of the here-and-now, spoke words calling us to use our diversity to address the formidable problems that lie ahead. It will be quoted for years to come.
Somehow this all seems appropriate. Rick Warren led off with a last uninspired hurrah of the Bush-Cheney years. Joseph Lowery, now 87 years old, like his colleague Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to close out the historic moment with a vision of his dream for the American future, a vision he shares with the new president.
I suspect Barack Obama knew how these two choices would play out when he made these selections and the order in which they would appear.