You’ve got to give the Episcopalians credit. When they want to put on a major display of establishmentarian power and glory, they sure can do it. With all the stops out for an anthem like Holy Holy Holy, you really felt that the National Prayer Service was, well, a national prayer service–conducted by a self-appointed First Among Equals but done up with all due respect for all those other equals. “Welcome to your Cathedral,” said the Dean of the place, the Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III. Well, kinda.
So it’s a big old Protestant service in which no one except a white evangelical feels compelled to pray in Jesus’ name. Not the Mainliners, not the Jews, not the Muslim nor the Hindu, not the Greek Orthodox Archbishop and not the Catholic Archbishop of Washington, who merely asked things of God “in your holy Name.” I’m all for recognizing the specific needs of particular religious traditions, but exactly where is it written that white evangelicals cannot pray generically to God when amongst a mixed religious congregation? So far as I know, it’s not one of the Fundamentals, nor is it required by any of the creeds or quasi-creeds that evangelicals swear to abide by. But there was the Reverend Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga., introducing Jesus into the equation.
Isaiah’s famous call for the right kind of fasting (58:6-12) got double billing, first in a reading by the Rev. Dr. Cynithia Hale of Ray of Hope Christian Church (Disciples) of Decatur, Ga., and then in the sermon by the head of her denomination, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins. This emphasized the main theme of the day, which was the importance of service to others; though oddly, Watkins, whose sermon will not go down in the annals of great American preaching, kept emphasizing that the wrong kind of fast was “the self-interested fast.” What Isaiah is criticizing, though, is not self-interested fasting but fasting for show, empty ritual without good works–in a word, the hypocritical fast. Watkins’ sermon would have been a good deal more interesting had she dilated on the dangers of hypocrisy in the new Age of Obama.
Towards the end of the service, the Cathedral Choir offered a rendition of America the Beautiful, including these words of Victorian caution from the second verse:
God mend thine every flaw,
confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.
This injunction has always seemed to me a bad-humored attempt to reign in the early Republic’s “sweet land of liberty,” but today I heard it as something worthwhile for us to take to heart as Obama’s economic team get down to the business of mending the flaws in our economic system by establishing some regulatory restraints on the troubled soul and unfettered liberty of Bush-era capitalism. Go for it, guys!