In a week of historic firsts, the swearing in of Barack Obama as the first African-American president of the United States was of such significance that other breaks with the past during inauguration week have gotten little attention.
But now that the crowds have dispersed and Washington is once again consumed with the business of government, it’s worth pausing to consider some of the less-noted inaugural “firsts” that tell us something about what kind of nation we are – and what kind of nation we might become:
• President Obama’s description of America as “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers” marked the first time the latter four groups had ever been mentioned in an inaugural address. Surprisingly, it was only the fourth time the words “Christians” or “Christian” had been used.
• Obama’s selection of the Rev. Rick Warren, a prominent evangelical leader, to give the invocation at the inauguration was the first instance I can find of a president’s giving a religious leader with whom he openly disagrees on major public-policy issues a prominent role in the ceremony.
Warren, in turn, did the unexpected by rejecting the nonsectarian language often heard on these occasions and praying in the name of Jesus. Note, however, that he did so in the first person (“I humbly ask this”), thereby acknowledging that not everyone prays in the same way or to the same God.
• Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson became the first openly gay religious leader to pray at an inaugural event. Viewed by many as a counterweight to Warren (whose selection caused an outcry among supporters of gay rights), Robinson prayed in the most universal religious language imaginable, invoking “the God of our many understandings.”
• And for the first time, a woman, the Rev. Sharon Watkins, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), led the national prayer service held the day after the inauguration at the National Cathedral. She was joined by 19 other religious leaders from Islam, Hinduism, many varieties of Christianity and three branches of Judaism.
Taken together, Obama’s choices of language and people signal first and foremost that he wants to be seen as president of all the people – believers of every stripe as well as those who have no religious affiliation.
More broadly, the symbolic message of the week might be described as unity in the interest of diversity: Yes, we are a nation of many religions and beliefs.
But as citizens we must affirm across our differences a shared commitment to treating one another with fairness and respect in the public square of America.
On a more prosaic level, Obama’s acknowledgment of our religious and philosophical diversity calls the nation to face demographic facts.
Gone are the days when any one faith can dominate our public life. Protestants in this historically Protestant-majority nation will soon number less than half of the population. Moreover, as the prayers of Rick Warren and Gene Robinson illustrate, Protestants themselves are extraordinarily diverse.
Whether you welcome or fear the pluralistic America on display during the inauguration (and Americans are divided about this), diversity is here to stay.
That means if we hope to live in peace – and continue to build one nation out of many – we must finally live up to the First Amendment’s promise of a level playing field for people of all faiths and none.
As Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Native Americans, Muslims, nonbelievers and other past and present victims of discrimination can attest, we have come a long way in the struggle for religious freedom – but we still have a distance to go.
For his part, President Obama seems confident that we can meet the new challenges of diversity. As he put it in his inaugural address, “we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”
Whether he is right remains to be seen. Negotiating America’s expanding religious and ideological differences in the years ahead will be no easy task; it will test our commitment to the religious-liberty principles of the First Amendment as never before in our history.
If all Americans have a real place at the table – beyond symbolism to substance – then our bold experiment in religious freedom may yet succeed. If not, it will surely fail.