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Perils and politics of inaugural prayers

Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center

Prayers delivered at presidential inaugurations are rarely quoted and quickly forgotten (at least in the earthly realm).

But in today's deeply divided America, who prays the prayers - and who doesn't - is fast becoming a religio-political weathervane pointing in the direction cultural winds are blowing.

President Obama's choice of the first lay person to give the inaugural invocation might have caused at least a minor stir in other years. But because Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers, was the one selected to pray - and the ceremony fell on Martin Luther King Day - the departure from clergy-led prayers provoked little comment or debate.

More controversial, however, was the last-minute withdrawal of Pastor Louie Giglio, the evangelical minister from Atlanta originally invited to offer the benediction.

Giglio's participation in the inauguration became a political hot potato after a liberal blog publicized a sermon he gave some 17 years ago condemning homosexuality as a sin and offering harsh words about the "aggressive agenda" of gay activists.

Rather than provoke a fight, Giglio withdrew his acceptance of the invitation to pray.

Four years ago, Obama's team stuck by the decision to have evangelical pastor Rick Warren give the benediction, despite criticism from progressives of Warren's religious views opposing homosexuality. This time around, however, the Presidential Inaugural Committee was quick to back away from Giglio. A committee spokesperson promised to replace Giglio with someone whose "beliefs reflect this administration's vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans."

Indeed, Giglio's replacement, the Rev. Luis Leon, gave a benediction that invoked God's blessings on "gay and straight" - echoing the support for GLBT equality pervading the entire ceremony.

Not surprisingly, many conservative Christian leaders and bloggers expressed outrage at the "withdrawal" of Pastor Giglio.

"This is another example of intolerance from the Obama administration to those who hold to biblical views on sexuality," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. "Are the scores of millions of Americans who affirm these teachings no longer welcome at the inauguration of our president?"

Ironically, many of the same religious conservatives who are decrying what they see as Obama's litmus test for who prays at the inauguration themselves apply litmus tests in other venues. For years now, conservative Christian organizers of National Day of Prayer events (including Perkins) have excluded all but those who accept their view of Scripture from leading the prayers.

The Giglio-inspired debate over inaugural prayers is yet another reminder of the perils of prayer on state occasions.

Truth be told, such prayers are almost by definition political in nature. The 2013 invocation and benediction, like most past inaugural prayers, sent clear social and political signals directed less to God and more to the listening public.

State prayers - like all manifestations of government-sponsored religion - have from time immemorial compromised authentic faith by serving the interests of the state. This, by the way, is why Thomas Jefferson wisely refused to issue presidential proclamations calling for national days of prayer and thanksgiving.

Moreover, in a pluralistic democracy no one can pray for everyone. Not all Americans can join with Myrlie Evers-Williams and say "in Jesus' name we pray." Even the most universal "to-whom-it-may-concern" prayers leave out the millions of Americans who don't pray at all.

Although it's unlikely to happen, it would be healthier for religion - and for the country - if prayers during inauguration week were left to places of worship, allowing every American to pray (or not) as conscience dictates.

For those who would mourn the loss of tradition, it's worth recalling that the practice of inviting clergy to lead prayers at the swearing-in is a relatively recent innovation, dating to President Franklin Roosevelt's second inauguration in 1937.

As long as political leaders persist in mixing prayer and politics, we'll just have to live with the fact that those who win elections get to determine what God hears from the Capitol steps every four years.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Army should fire 'conservative terrorism' author

Another Perspective

By Bill Wilson

Individuals enlisting in the U.S. Armed Forces must swear an oath to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic." But what happens when the only crime perpetrated by the "enemy" is supporting and defending the Constitution?

Such is the dilemma facing future military officers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point - who are being taught to view freedom-loving Americans as violent, racist terrorists-in-waiting. As part of the federal government's ongoing jihad against common-sense fiscal conservatism and constitutionally limited government, West Point's Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) has issued a new report making some dangerously irrational generalizations about the "far-right."

Titled, "Challengers from the Sidelines: Understanding America's Violent Far-Right," the West Point report provides a stunningly one-sided demonization of conservative ideology - and simultaneous embrace of "progressive" liberal thought.

Written by Dr. AriePerliger, director of terrorism studies at the CTC, the report warns of the rising militancy of so-called "anti-federalists" - or Americans who embrace radical notions like "civil activism, individual freedoms and self-government." In other words, anyone expressing support for the fundamental democratic ideals upon which our nation was founded could be a terrorist.

According to Perliger, these "anti-federalists" are dangerous because they "espouse strong convictions regarding the federal government, believing it to be corrupt and tyrannical, with a natural tendency to intrude on individuals' civil and constitutional rights."

Wait - government isn't corrupt? And warrantless wiretaps, forced participation in a Social Security Ponzi scheme and Barack Obama's health insurance mandate aren't intrusions on our liberties?

Of course they are - but apparently exercising one's First Amendment freedom to speak out against these assaults on liberty is a one-way ticket to a government watch list. However, advocating vociferously in support of these anti-American policies is completely permissible.

"While liberal worldviews are future- or progressive-oriented, conservative perspectives are more past-oriented, and in general, are interested in preserving the status quo," the report claims. "The far right represents a more extreme version of conservatism, as its political vision is usually justified by the aspiration to restore or preserve values and practices that are part of the idealized historical heritage of the nation or ethnic community."

In case those racial undertones were too subtle, Perliger's report proceeds to put a much finer point on it.

"While far-right groups' ideology is designed to exclude minorities and foreigners, the liberal-democratic system is designed to emphasize civil rights, minority rights and the balance of power," he writes.

Translation? "Extreme right wingers" aren't just terrorists, they're racist terrorists.

This shameful playing of the race card is nothing new. Who can forget the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's insidious "See Something, Say Something" video - a disgusting bit of race-baiting propaganda which portrayed white men in hoodies as menacing figures intent on attacking African Americans, Asian Americans and Latinos.

Like so many myths propagated by the far left - i.e., "gun control reduces violence," "tax cuts must be paid for" or "government spending stimulates the economy" - the whole "right-wing radical" myth is easily debunked.

In fact, according to a DHS-funded study released last year by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism, America's militant left is far more likely to engage in acts of violence than its militant right. According to the report - entitled "Hot Spots of Terrorism and Other Crimes in the United States, 1970-2008" - the overwhelming majority of domestic terrorist attacks in America have been "extreme left-wing" in their ideological origins (364) followed closely by single-issue groups whose ideologies were classified as "other" (337).

By comparison, "extreme right-wing" groups accounted for far fewer (58) attacks.

In other words, it's not tea partiers we need to watch out for, it's people like Obama's terrorist buddy Bill Ayers.

As the Obama administration ramps up its assault on our liberties, we must not forget that these intrusions affect Americans of all creeds and colors. It's also important to remember that taking a firm stand against these intrusions doesn't make one a radical, a right-winger or a racist - just an American exercising your right to free speech.

This is why West Point must immediately fire Perliger - and publicly repudiate his reckless statements.

Bill Wilson is the president of Americans for Limited Government. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillWilsonALG.

Obama's Battle Hymn

In Other Words

By Donald Kaul

I don't think President Barack Obama gave a good inaugural address this time. I think it was a great one.

H e began with the principles of freedom and equality that inform our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, and followed our journey through the many struggles we've undertaken to make those principles manifest - Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall.

O bama made glancing reference to Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, as well as Martin Luther King's speech on the other end of the Mall more than 40 years ago, and echoed John F. Kennedy's words of resolve.

H e embraced Franklin D. Roosevelt's idea of government as an engine of progress and paid homage to the women's movement and its continuing fight for equal treatment. He sounded determined to do something about climate change, the growing divide between the very rich and the rest of us, reforming our broken immigration system, and reinforcing voting rights.

A nd he tied it together under one phrase: "Preserving our individual freedom ultimately requires collective action."

A fter three decades of being fed the lie that government isn't the solution but rather the problem, it was a gust of fresh air to hear a president sound like an unapologetic liberal.

T hat theme was struck immediately when the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir started things off with a rousing rendition of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the anthem of the Union forces during the Civil War. I can only imagine how that sounded to the southern Republicans, who have done their best to thwart Obama's leadership at every turn.

I t was as if he said: "We not only won the damn election, we won the damn war. It's about time you got used to it."

W as it a conciliatory speech? Of course not. He tried that once, remember? All he got for it from the Republicans was implacable hostility, unyielding obstructionism, and insults.

T his speech, elegant in its phrasing and majestic in its arc, planted Obama's battle flag on the Capitol steps. Up until now, the Republicans haven't shown much respect for our president. They have made it clear that they think he's a pushover. They might be having second thoughts.

S ome have said that this marks the end of the era of Ronald Reagan. God, I hope so. Conservatives have raised Reagan to mythical status, endowing him with virtues he would not have claimed for himself.

I was in Washington during the first Reagan inauguration and it was quite a spectacle. Every limousine up and down the East Coast was commandeered for the event. You saw them everywhere, disgorging ladies in fur coats and men in formal wear. I felt as though I were witnessing a coronation in a foreign country.

F or all his posturing, it was Reagan who sold the Republicans on the idea that it was OK to have a big government, so long as you didn't pay for it.

S ince then, they seem to have realized that you can only work that scam for so long, so conservatives now want to cut government, particularly as it pertains to the poor, the young, and the old, all the while maintaining the privileges granted to the rich and powerful.

T hey're having a tough time selling that formula. That's what the election was about. We'll see whether Obama can make good on the implicit promises of his speech or whether the congressional proxies of the oligarchs who own our society can hold him off.

T he election in 2014 will help answer that question.

A s for myself, I had a great time hearing Obama's speech. It made me proud to be an American. I love this country. For all of its flaws and warts and unfulfilled promises, I wouldn't be a citizen of any other.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. OtherWords.org

Guns help defend life and liberty

Guest Column

By RD Skidmore

Everyone with an ounce of compassion detests seeing families destroyed, and innocent children sacrificed as we witnessed at Sandy Hook School. The argument that reducing the number of guns produces a safer society beguiles the public, promotes politicians and fails to hold wicked people accountable for their actions.

While gun rights supporters assert that the Constitutional Second Amendment right of the people to keep and bears arms is an inalienable individual right just as freedom of speech or religion, and confirmed by the our Supreme Court, gun opponents assert this right pertains only to collective bodies such as the militia, the military, police or National Guard.

The Washington Post states: "[T]he sale, manufacture, and possession of handguns ought to be banned…[W]e do not believe the 2nd Amendment guarantees an individual right to keep them."

Gun opponents frequently utilize highly-publicized, tragic instances of violence to fortify their confiscation argument saying that guns should be left only in the hands of 'professionals'. California Senator Diane Feinstein (D) has presented legislation to outlaw 157 firearms. The ACLU, supports Senator Feinstein, and has stated "[T]he individual's right to bear arms applies only to the preservation or efficiency of a 'well-regulated militia.'" Except for lawful police and military purposes, the possession of weapons by individuals is not constitutionally protected."

Yet, disarming innocent people does not make innocent people safer.

Cabinet Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, even prefers to abandon our Constitution, stating in a speech given at a Washington, D.C. elementary school that "We have common values that go far beyond the Constitutional right to bear arms."

The Founders of this nation understood that there exists individual inalienable rights and our American government was formed with the sole purpose of safeguarding those inalienable rights. As a nation we are unique in this purpose for government, and the Founders demanded that all office holders swear an oath to 'protect and defend' these rights enumerated in our Constitution.

Opponents confuse the Founders original intent to argue that they never intended to allow citizens to be armed with semi-automatic rifles. This common error in constitutional interpretation is failing to examine the Constitution according to its original meaning.

James Wilson, one of only six founders to sign both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, was nominated by President George Washington as an original Justice on the Supreme Court, exhorted: "The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it."

The Founders framed the Second Amendment as a certification to protect what was frequently called "the first law of nature"-the right of self-protection, an inalienable right-guaranteed to every citizen individually.

Understanding the Second Amendment's intention that secures the right "to keep and bear arms", it is important to establish the source of inalienable rights constitutionally. Constitution signer John Dickenson, like many of the others in his day, defined an inalienable right as a right "which God gave to you and which no inferior power has a right to take away."

Our Founders believed that it was the duty of government (an inferior power) to protect inalienable rights from encroachment or usurpation. This was made clear by Justice Wilson, while a serving Justice on the Supreme Court; he taught his law students that the specific protections found in our government documents did not create new rights, rather secured old rights - that our documents were merely "…to acquire a new security for the possession or the recovery of those rights…which we were previously entitled by the immediate gift or by the unerring law of our all-wise and all-beneficent Creator."

Justice Wilson asserted that "…every government which has not this in view as its principal object is not a government of the legitimate kind."

The Founders understood the basic concept that government is not the source of rights; that self defense is an inalienable right the Second Amendment guarantees; that each citizen is guaranteed the tools necessary to defend their life, family, or property from aggression, whether from an individual or a government.

Skidmore is a professor at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Ca. He may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Civil rights movement rode assembly, petition to greater freedom

Inside the First Amendment

By Gene Policinski
First Amendment Center

A ssembly and petition are the "quiet freedoms" among the five rights set out in the First Amendment.

Speech, press and religion are more often - or at least, more obviously - in the headlines.

But during Black History Month, in February, the quiet kids on this corner of the constitutional block deserve at least as much attention as their better-known brethren.

There's a good case to be made that the march toward civil rights for African-Americans in this nation is the best example of all five First Amendment freedoms fully at work.

But at the heart of the movement were assembly and petition - the right to gather with people of like minds without government interference; and to seek change peaceably from the government, either as a group or an individual.

Without the ability to assemble, those repressed by statute and custom could not have gathered the strength to begin or been able to sustain the "Movement." Without the First Amendment, many strategy sessions and prayer services held in churches to refresh the mind and restore the soul could have been suppressed.

The conscience of much of the nation could have remained closed for decades longer to the daily horrors of discrimination.

Being able to speak openly, to publish and broadcast without censorship - and to develop the principle of justice and fairness that so often came out of religious tenets, were essential to challenge those for whom the status quo was just fine.

In the modern era of the push for civil rights, the free press, particularly emerging national broadcast television, that brought into the nation's homes the reality of the marches, lunch-counter protests and school-desegregation efforts, and the crude bigotry and violence that often followed. 

The nation's Founders feared not just government suppression and censorship, but also the "tyranny of the majority" - a static situation in which those in power would be so strong that they could remain forever in control because they could prevent or punish those seeking change.

Although those revolutionary figures failed at the time to settle the issue of real equality for all citizens (even as they penned those words in our founding documents), they did provide the tools of change to be used by everyone.

Those tools are enumerated in the 45 words of the First Amendment, and their impact has resonated through the nation's life. Those five core freedoms nourished not just a push for equal justice among the races, but also the women's-suffrage movement, labor rights and more.

The celebration of those tools and that history should come in February, to be sure - and continue year round.

Gene Policinski is senior vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .