Making the Grade at Prayer

Michael Sean Winters analyzes the three prominent prayers of the Inauguration festival, those by Bishop Robinson, Pastor Warren, and Reverend Lowery. There’s some good commentary, but I think Winters lets Pastor Warren off real easy with a B+. Rambling gets no traction in my book: I give the man a C-minus. For the record, none of them made the dean’s list. Content? Not enough. You need style and composition, too.

More was made, much much more, of the identity and ideology of the prayer-leaders. This pretty much flies in the face of a Catholic approach. We understand prayers to be of the people, by the people, so to speak. While Catholicism present and past may be said to be clergy-centered in many ways, the specific identity of the priest is pretty much irrelevant. Pastor or associate presiding: who cares? Visiting missionary or guest priest? Doesn’t matter. The prayers are pretty much the same words that would have been prayed anyway. The laity carry on.

A useful insight from Mr Winters:

In his book “The American Gospel” John Meachem described what he called “civic religion,” a religion that acknowledges an indistinct, non-denominational God who may have some vague providential role in human history but is never so specific as to cause offense. The affection for “civic religion” is really a rush to the lowest common denominator and it should be resisted. It may not cause offense, but it is dishonest. The founders were Deists, and our constitutional arrangements may be better than they otherwise would be because they were Deists. But, there are no more Deists. We all believe in an interfering God of one sort of another.

The truth is that the millions gathered on the mall and the billions watching on tv had their own prayers at that moment. At the very least, the unreligious had hopes. Most were focused on the president-to-be and hoping that this was all going to turn out okay. To the degree a public leader of prayer echoed these sentiments, it was more than just a rambling, therapeutic, or chummy performance.


When I think of prayer being competently led, being of dean’s list quality, two things, really sink or float the effort. Distrust any prayer that uses first-person singular. That has no place, and the Roman Rite is wise to use the plural “we,” even if it ignores the mewlings of protesters who don’t want the focus on “us.” A certain transparency is needed, too. It’s vital. Maybe that approach would appeal to the independent American sentiments. All I know is that when I see someone up on a stage get all squinty-eyed, it’s sometimes not for God’s or our benefit.


As for the allusion to Meachem, I think we can say something about the “lowest common denominator.” Hope. We all want hope, and those of us who may have it, want a little bit more to sustain it. There. That’s it. The prayers of civic religion should be short and to the point. Then get out of the way for the real reason why people gathered. The genius of brevity is that it leaves room for an expected degree of splintering–which may be its own challenge. To address that, we need something more than a new president.



About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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4 Responses to Making the Grade at Prayer

  1. Liam says:

    Winters might have benefitted from the illumination (and subsequent discussion in part) offered by Dave Nickol about the possible origin of that rhyming coda to Lowery’s prayer in the comment box to this Vox Nova thread about that prayer:

    Winters has the measure of the miasma that was Robinson’s invocation. I’d give it an F, flat out. (Probably because I’ve witnessed prayers of this sort too many times in my journey, and realize it mostly tends to bath the people embracing the prayer in a mantle of self-righteousness that undermines the ostensible point of such a prayer. Jesus had lots to say about that kind of prayer… If I had not experienced this and its results so much, I might be generous and assign a D in my ignorance.)

    Winters was too kind to Warren, and I think Todd is better. I’d give it a C-.

    As for Lowery, he should have left off the incongruent ditty. It was a prayer at war with itself. I could even begin to grade it.

  2. Liam says:

    Could *not* even begin to grade it, sorry.

  3. Michael says:

    I cannot comment on either Robinson or Warren, as I did not see them, but Lowery was brilliant. His prayer was perfect for the occasion, and the “ditty” was not incongruent at all.

  4. Jimmy Mac says:

    Joseph Lowery is of an age and background that would make this blues song by “Big Bill” Broonzy very familiar to him. I suspect that part of his benediction is simply an updated paraphrase of the refrain. It is about time that whites get used to the fact that they HAVE been guilty of racism, are still so in way too many areas, and that Blacks and others aren’t simply going to sing “Kumbaya” just to keep us happy!

    This song can be found on the CD: “Big Bill Blues” (Vogue). The recording date was September 20, 1951 in Paris.
    Black, Brown And White (B. B. Broonzy)

    This little song that I’m singin’ about
    People you know it’s true
    If you’re black and gotta work for a living
    This is what they will say to you.

    They says if you was white, should be all right
    If you was brown, stick around
    But as you’s black, m-mm brother, git back git back git back

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