To Pray or not to Pray, That Is the Question

by Lori G. Baynard

There is something about the start of a New Year that prompts in me a child-like excitement about what the New Year will bring. Unlike many of the ancient cultures which purported that old is better because it is tested and true, I am a product of our present culture which believes that "new means improved."

I look to the start of a new presidential administration as an opportunity to improve the world we currently live in. On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama will solemnly swear to "faithfully execute the office of president of the United States" and, to the best of his ability, "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The man who made so many promises of "change" to the American people will have his inauguration theme "A New Birth of Freedom."  The task he faces will be extremely challenging, to say the least.

The Obama administration will find itself entangled in problems both at home and abroad that will be a threat to the freedom he proposes. Domestically, a financial crisis threatens the economic stability of not only the United States but also economies around the world. "Pay to Play" scandals have threatened the integrity of our government, with Governor Rod Blagojevich being arrested for allegedly trying to sell Obama's senate seat and Governor Bill Richardson withdrawing his nomination for commerce secretary due to the grand jury investigation of his campaign fundraising.

The issues the new president will face abroad are even more challenging: an escalating war in Gaza, ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, rumors of a possible coup d'état in Guinea, and African troops being deployed in the Congo because of massacres that have killed more than 400 people since Christmas day. This list could go on ad nauseum. If there was ever a time that a president needed the wisdom and guidance of God, surely this is the time. However, controversy surrounds the selection of the person who will do just that—to pray for the president on Inauguration Day. Obama's choice of Rev. Rick Warren to give the inaugural prayer has elicited backlash from both evangelicals and liberals alike. While some liberals are upset about Obama's pick because of Rick Warren's pro-life stance and his support of Proposition 8 in California, some Christians are upset that Warren would accept to do the prayer because of Obama's stance on abortion and gay rights. There is also a controversy surrounding whether Warren will invoke the name of Jesus in his inauguration prayer. While a lawsuit is currently pending that would try to prevent the new president from mentioning the customary words "so help me God" during his oath, this same lawsuit also attempts to stop Warren from invoking the name of Jesus. Some Christians are poised to condemn Rev. Warren if he does not invoke Jesus' name.

What do you think? Should Rev. Warren pray for the new president during the inauguration or not?  If so, should he invoke the name of Jesus in his prayer or should he use a more generic phrase that omits the name of Jesus, as many other ministers have done in past inaugurations? As Christians, should we pray only for the people who believe as we do? Do we not have an obligation to pray for God's will to be done on earth despite our own political and religious convictions? Let's consider Paul's instruction to Timothy: "First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior" (1 Timothy 2:1-3).

Lori G. Baynard is a Sider Scholar and an Ayers Scholar at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa., where she is pursuing a masters of theological stutides in Christian Faith and Public Policy.

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