Newsweek's Lisa Miller on Religious Fundamentalists and the Inauguration

Lisa Miller, Newsweek | file photo via Newsweek.comInvoking the threat of "religious fundamentalists abroad" and tacitly comparing them to religious conservatives in the United States, Newsweek's Lisa Miller advises President-elect Obama to ditch the practice of having clergy offer prayers at the presidential inauguration:

Our new president might use his Inauguration then to showcase the values that have made this country great: pluralism, moderation—and the separation of church and state. Though not as politically expedient, the better choice might be to pray in private.

Miller wrote her article for the January 19 print edition in light of a lawsuit "filed by the atheist gadfly Michael Newdow." While she noted that "[e]ven some of Newdow's ideological allies are steering clear," Miller went no further in exploring whether it may be Newdow who is showcasing a  modern value that threatens the country's greatness: the filing of spurious lawsuits.

Instead, Miller sought to show that historians are uncertain just how traditional the role of religious faith plays in presidential inaugurals. Indeed, as far as Miller is concerned, the convention is all too recent and worse, a musty relic of the Cold War (emphases mine):

As the Cold War began with its threat of what was known as "Godless communism," American expressions of religiosity grew fervent. "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, "In God We Trust" as the national motto—all these were innovations of the 1950s. In 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower invited four clerics, including a rabbi and a Greek Orthodox archbishop, to pray at his Inauguration. Billy Graham offered prayers at eight Inaugurations starting in 1953, his angular face an international symbol of American Christian piety.

What we think of, then, as the conventional religiosity of Inaugurations is conventional only by recent standards—and conventions, as Obama well knows, can change. According to an affidavit by Jeffrey Minear, chief of staff to Chief Justice John Roberts, who is the defendant in the lawsuit, Obama wants to say "so help me God"—and by all means, he should do so. The public prayers by two Christian ministers are more problematic. Today, the greatest threats to our safety come not from godless communists but from religious fundamentalists abroad.

Photo of Miller via Newsweek.com.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is the Managing Editor for NewsBusters