December 25, 2008
Ain't it something? Obama picks a whole cabinet and a host of top advisors, and there's hardly a mumble of dissent. Obama picks megachurch-preacher Rick Warren for his inauguration, and half his supporters - his supporters, mind you — are furious: How can you choose a guy who opposes what you favor, a guy who rejects abortion rights and compares gay marriage to incest?
The president-elect is either a master dialectician or a fuzzy-head when it comes to the volatility of religion in American life.
He himself takes the dialectic side: "That's part of the magic of this country," he told the press last week, "that we are diverse and noisy and opinionated. That's hopefully going to be a spirit that carries over into my administration."
The Team of Rivals marches heavenward.
On the fuzzy-headed side, Obama has something of a history. He defended the incendiary Jeremiah Wright till that Chicago firebrand became indefensible; how couldn't he realize that Warren would ignite a similar explosion, though in a rather different constituency?
What does this tell us about Obama's religio-political disposition? To add the requisite transcendent dimension to the inaugural love-feast, he could easily and sensibly have selected some neutral figure, like an all-inclusivist Unitarian. Does Mr. No-Drama like playing with religious fire?
Of course, the only excluded party in all of this uproar is God himself.
God — that poor thing. The Eternal, the Almighty, the Master of Everything has become just another political football, passed and kicked this way and that in this self-congratulatory game.
If I — or you — were God, we wouldn't stand for it. We'd assert ourselves. But either Christopher Hitchens is right that God Is Not Great, or God does not exist, or God exists in a way that confounds the smug assuredness of Warren and the whole bunch of other self-appointed surrogates that think they know who he is and what he is doing.
If the Torah and the Gospels reveal anything about God, it's that just when people believe they've got him figured out, he turns the tables on them. To use one of many examples from the book of Genesis: God hates deception, doesn't he? So God gives the birthright to Jacob through an act of deception, Jacob fooling his blind old father Isaac into blessing him instead of his elder brother. Or to use one timely example from the Gospels: God is all-powerful, right? So he sends his Son to be born in abject poverty and helplessness, not in a palace but a barn.
What kind of a God is this, anyway?
Perhaps God does not exist. Perhaps God is impotent. Perhaps God is disinterested. Or perhaps God is totally different from anything we think we know, at work in ways we shall never know.
At an inauguration, when the president and the nation need all the help they can get, it doesn't seem quite right to be noisy and opinionated in the matter of invoking God. Better to approach God, whatever and whoever he is, in silence and humility, in fear and trembling.
Just in case.