Monday, January 19, 2009

Reality check

HBO pushed Bishop Gene Robinson's invocation off the air. The "We Are One" concert that was supposed to kick off Barack Obama's inauguration celebration at the Lincoln Memorial with a blow out concert. Robinson's prayer was supposed to act as a counterweight to Rick Warren's scheduled invocation at the swearing-in ceremony itself. Whether or not one agrees with Robinson, religious people everywhere...especially those who are concerned with the place of religious engagement in the public square...should be concerned.

HBO did not even include the prayer in the edited re-broadcast of the concert later that night.

It appears that Robinson was asked to begin "pre-concert" events, but as you can see from the video above, no one assumed that anything had begun yet, and even the local sound crews were caught off guard because they had not even switched on the speaker tower near the Washington Monument.

One lesson in this fiasco is this: God wants us to be in the public square. God needs us to speak both blessing and warning, and to speak truth to power. We should not confuse a seat at the high table for doing what God needs us to be doing. Especially when table host might pull the seat out from under us.

There are two prevailing theories that I am reading in the blogosphere: it was a conspiracy by HBO who moved the prayer to ten minutes ahead of curtain to be sure it would not be on TV. (HBO blames in Inauguration Committee.) Or it was either a decision by Obama people to move the Bishop forward (They blame HBO.)

Maybe HBO only wanted to show entertainers and that Barack can speak to us in the current civil religion that really matters: entertainment. Besides, one of HBO's most popular shows is hosted by Bill Maher is hosted by evangelical atheist who thinks religion is a mental disorder and who will only engage religionists who are obviously ignorant, silly or weird. The day he engages (and listens to) the intelligent and thoughtful religious is the day he stops being an entertainer. Maher and Rush Limbaugh inhabit the same form of opinion shapers...those who package their opinions as "entertainment" so they are exempt from their responsibilities when their views come home to roost.

HBO is, after all, in the entertainment business but it is also a shaper of secular thought without reference to religion or faith in any serious way. They will engage serious issues of sexuality when it's Six Feet Under or depict homosexual rape on Oz or give time to Maher to castigate religious bigots. They only want to engage issues, provocatively or not, on their own terms. HBO had a chance to show an inclusive religious leader in a gay-friendly light, in an entertainment context and they dodged it. Given a chance to avoid serious theological engagement and they took it. That they threw the LGBT community under the bus in the process was, well, unfortunate.

But HBO was not alone.

Maybe the Obama people are terrified that their president will do anything to avoid the kind of thing that happened to Bill Clinton very early in his first term...remember the "gays in the military" flap that ended up with the disastrous don't-ask-don't-tell policy? Maybe they are more afraid that being seen with Bishop Robinson is more dangerous to Obama that being seen on stage with He-Who-Sounds-Moderate, Rick Warren?

Maybe Obama's handlers are just tired of Obama getting in trouble over his choice of pastors?

Was this a political pragmatism packaged as a screw-up? Or was it a freudian that tells us more of what's really on people's minds?

You know, I've done enough of these public invocations to know that the organizers often want it to be over and done with ASAP. These invocations are not meant to be deep worship experiences. It doesn't matter if it is Veteran's Day event, the dedication of a hospital wing, or the Rotary Club prayer...these things are more are less window dressing. But at least when I prayed at Rotary it was after the bell had rung and people stopped eating their rubber chicken for a minute. Gene did not even get as much time as the set-piece preacher in soap opera wedding scene.

Which is more shameful? The stunning insult to the gay community or the stunning insult to religiosity in general? The message of the concert was pretty clear. We are one, unless you are gay. We are one, unless you are religious. Citizenship doesn't even make us one. What makes us one is that we all like a free concert.

So my expectation is this: the religious voice that will get the most attention will be the respectable white evangelical guy from the mega-church and the big religious news of the day will be that his prayer will not be not as offensive or exclusive as it might have been.

People will, rightly, focus on the slight to gay and lesbian people in how this was handled. And I hope responsible journalists press for some answers and make some people feel the shame.

But we who are called to follow Christ in a post-Christian, post-religious world--a place where the supermarket of ideas is stacked against serious religious inquiry--should take note. For politicians, media execs and producers, religion is a set piece to be used or not used according to the message that want conveyed.

It is perhaps a healthy lesson on the day before the inauguration of a person in whom many of us have invested so much hope. As the psalmist says:

No king is saved by the size of his army;
no warrior escapes by his great strength.

A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
despite all its great strength it cannot save.
Psalm 33:16-17

As Gene himself said in his prayer, Barak is many things, many of them good, but a savior he ain't.

See the coverage at the Episcopal Cafe for more.

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