Rick Warren's Inauguration Prayer Steers Clear of Controversy While Invoking Jesus

His remarks at Obama's inauguration struck a conciliatory tone, despite an overtly Christian appeal.

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With all the outcry in the gay community and the political left over Barack Obama's selection of Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, the big question hanging over the evangelical pastor's prayer yesterday was whether it would ratchet up or tone down the controversy. Invoking a God that he said was "loving to everyone you have made" and praying for "civility in our attitudes, even when we differ," Warren clearly opted for a conciliatory tone that eschewed any mention of culture-war issues.

In the face of widespread speculation about whether he would invoke Jesus's name or take a more ecumenical approach, Warren's roughly five-minute prayer included allusions to Judaism and Islam but ended in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, the most widely shared prayer among Christianity's divergent traditions and denominations.

"Help us, oh God, to remember that we are Americans, united not by race or religion or blood but by our commitment to freedom and justice for all," Warren said in an appearance that seemed designed to reinforce his image as a unifying, post-Christian-right figure rather than as a divisive culture warrior. Warren opposes gay marriage and abortion rights but is also active with causes more popular with the left, like combating global warming and fighting poverty.

"Most of what he said would be unobjectionable to most Americans," says John Green, senior fellow in religion and American politics at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "He didn't mention any social issues, even indirectly. It was pretty standard invocation stuff."

In an interview after the invocation, Warren spokesman Larry Ross said that he didn't know whether the pastor was responding directly to the controversy over his selection but that "he wanted to encourage both unity and inclusiveness."

Richard Muow, president of the Fuller Seminary in Southern California and an influential evangelical figure, says Warren appeared to be responding to the controversy in his prayer. "He was obviously talking to God," Muow says. "But in talking to God, he was modeling how to remain firm in his convictions but include in that a desire to work for the common good, which means having to work together as citizens."

In the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, the content of Warren's invocation appeared to stir little of the controversy that followed the announcement of Warren's inaugural role five weeks ago. Though the inclusion of gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson at a separate inauguration week event tamped down the outcry over Warren from the gay rights movement, its leaders are unlikely to forget Obama's invitation to the socially conservative minister anytime soon. "Both the Warren and Robinson decisions give us a clue about what the road ahead is going to be like," said Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights group. "This is the beginning of a long journey."

"Our job is to praise and support the administration when they do things that advance gay equality and call them out when they don't," he added.

Despite the outcry in the LGBT community over Warren's role at the inauguration, a Gallup Poll this week showed that just 9 percent of Americans disapproved of Warren giving the invocation, though many were unaware of his role.

Though Warren closed with an overtly Christian prayer, one of the first lines of his invocation was a recitation of the Shema, the most important prayer in Judaism: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One." In the following sentence, Warren invoked a line that opens all but one chapter of the Koran: "You are the compassionate and merciful one."

Warren broke into the Lord's Prayer—which begins with the words "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name"—in the last lines of his invocation but specified that he was doing it in the "name of the one who changed my life." Then he spoke Jesus's name in a handful of languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. "It was more a personal testimony than insisting that everyone accept this prayer," says Fuller's Muow. "It was as ecumenical a prayer as an evangelical could give."