President-elect Barack Obama’s choice of openly gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson to say a prayer Sunday at the Lincoln Memorial is the latest in a theologically diverse lineup of clergy slated to pray or speak at inauguration festivities.
Bishop Robinson, whose consecration to the episcopate in 2003 was the culminating event in thousands of Episcopalians’ decisions to flee their denomination, rounds out a list of clergy that includes Rev. Rick Warren.
Mr. Warren’s selection had sparked controversy because of his conservative and theological points of view, including his opposition to gay marriage.
The bishop had called the choice “a slap in the face” when it was announced in December, and said he personally contacted staff for the president-elect to express his displeasure.
“It will be an enormous honor to offer prayers for the country and the new president, standing on the holy ground where the ‘I have a dream speech’ was delivered by Dr. King, surrounded by the inspiring and reconciling words of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” Bishop Robinson said in e-mail to Episcopal Cafe, a blog operated by the Diocese of Washington.
“It is also an indication of the new president’s commitment to being the president of ALL the people. I am humbled and overjoyed at this invitation, and it will be my great honor to be there representing the Episcopal Church, the people of New Hampshire, and all of us in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.”
The bishop told the Concord Monitor last weekend he will not be referring to the Bible.
“While that is a holy and sacred text to me, it is not for many Americans,” he said. “I will be careful not to be especially Christian in my prayer. This is a prayer for the whole nation.”
On Sunday, the inauguration committee announced the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, president of the Disciples of Christ, would be the first female preacher at the National Prayer Service on Wednesday morning at the Washington Cathedral.
Last month, the committee announced that Mr. Warren, a Southern Baptist and the pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., would give the invocation at the Jan. 20 inauguration. A spokesman said Mr. Warren had no comment on the Robinson selection.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a United Methodist who is black and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, will give the benediction.
Gay activists had complained extensively about the Warren selection, as the minister had backed a successful Proposition 8 ballot against same-sex marriage in California. Monday, they praised the president for choosing someone from their ranks.
The Rev. Susan Russell, president of the gay Episcopal caucus Integrity called the choice of Bishop Robinson “good news not only for gay and lesbian Americans but for all who share the audacious hope of a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all are created equal.”
“It is encouraging that the president-elect has chosen this spiritual hero for all Americans to lead the nation in prayer at the Lincoln Memorial inaugural concert,” said Human Rights Campaign President Joe Solmonese.
Bishop Robinson’s spokesman, Mike Barwell, said the invitation came “a couple of weeks” ago but that nothing could be said until the committee made its announcement Monday.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, criticized the selection.
“President-elect Barack Obama says he wants to unite Americans, and yet he chooses the most polarizing person in the Episcopal Church, Bishop Gene Robinson, to offer a prayer at one of his inaugural events,” he said.
After listing some of Bishop Robinson’s past remarks criticizing the Catholic Church, Mr. Donahue said “Obama has chosen a man who offends Catholics as much as he does Protestants,” he added. “If that’s his idea of inclusion, he can keep it. The only saving grace is that Robinson says he will not use a Bible next week. It would be news if he did.”
Bishop Robinson will be part of a star-studded event at the Lincoln Memorial featuring readings by celebrities Denzel Washington, Queen Latifah, Jamie Foxx and Martin Luther King III, and performers such as Beyonce, Bono, Garth Brooks, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder. The extravaganza, which begins at 2 p.m., will be aired exclusively on HBO Sunday evening. Both the president and vice-president-elect will attend.
The bishop’s selection was not totally out of the blue, as he had been a liaison between gays and the Obama campaign and was one of the first religious leaders to endorse the Democratic nominee.
He is not the first gay cleric to offer prayers during inauguration festivities. The Rev. Peter J. Gomes, an American Baptist preacher who teaches at Harvard, gave the benediction at the 1985 Reagan inauguration and preached at the 1989 George H.W. Bush’s National Prayer Service at the Washington Cathedral. He revealed his homosexuality in 1991 but said he was remaining celibate.