How many preachers does one inauguration need?

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Jan. 12 2009 7:44 PM

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How many preachers does one inauguration need?

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Twice since 2000, atheists have sued the federal government to keep religion out of the presidential inauguration. Both times they lost. They have filed suit again over this year's ceremony, and their case looms especially large: Barack Obama is bringing in more preachers and pastors than we can count.

OK, we can count them. Four (so far, at least). Still, that's a lot of praying. Here's a quick rundown of inauguration week, God-wise.

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Who: The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson
When: Sunday
Where: The Lincoln Memorial
Sect: Episcopalian

Background: Robinson was elected the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003. * The event ticked off conservative Christians everywhere and threatened to cause a schism within the church itself. At least one American diocese voted to secede, and the archbishop of Canterbury denied him a seat last year at the church's once-a-decade meeting in England.

After Obama's selection of Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration drew fire from gay leaders, the Presidential Inaugural Committee invited Robinson to participate. It's unclear whether the invitation was a direct response to the criticism—transition officials say it was not. When Obama picked Warren, Robinson said, "it was like a slap in the face." It wasn't just that Warren had campaigned for Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California. He has offered refuge to congregations that choose to break off from the church in order to form their own anti-gay sects.

Beliefs: Robinson teaches the standard Episcopalian gospel, save the obvious caveats about homosexuality. He was married and divorced in the 1980s, and now lives with a male partner. What irks his critics most is his belief that God and homosexuality are compatible, even complementary: "I have to tell you—I felt called by God to come out," he said in 2006.

Who: The Rev. Rick Warren
When: Tuesday, before the swearing-in
Where: The U.S. Capitol
Sect: Southern Baptist, evangelical

Background: Warren is the McDonald's of American pastors. He founded his church in Saddleback, Calif., in 1980. Since then, its congregation has grown to tens of thousands. It's not even a church—it's a "campus." His book The Purpose-Driven Life has sold more than 20 million copies. He played a prominent role in the 2008 elections when he hosted a forum with Obama and John McCain. In August, he said he doubted Obama could make inroads with evangelical voters. Obama took flak for picking Warren to give the invocation because of Warren's views on homosexuality and his recent efforts to ratify Prop 8. But Warren has drawn praise (with exceptions) for his work combating disease in Africa.

Beliefs: Warren is a preacher who tries hard not to sound preachy. He's a family-values conservative, but he keeps his teachings accessible and friendly. Sometimes that doesn't work, as when he suggested women should not divorce their husbands even in cases of domestic abuse. Warren also doesn't believe in evolution. "I believe that God, at a moment, created man. I do believe Genesis is literal, but I do also know metaphorical terms are used."

Warren's stance on homosexuality is hard to spin, try as he might. He says he supports "full equal rights for everyone in America." But: "I'm opposed to the redefiniton of a 5,000-year definition of marriage. I'm opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that marriage. I'm opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage."

Who: The Rev. Joseph Lowery
When: Tuesday, after the swearing-in
Where: The U.S. Capitol
Sect: United Methodist

Background: As a pastor in Alabama, the Rev. Lowery was a major figure in the civil rights movement, organizing the Montgomery bus boycott and the march from Selma to Montgomery, and co-founding the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He doesn't hesitate to speak out on political issues. At Coretta Scott King's funeral in 2007, in the presence of President Bush, he mocked the failed search for weapons of mass destruction. At an Obama campaign event in 2007, he praised the Rev. Michael Pfleger and said he prayed for Louis Farrakhan, who was in the hospital.

Beliefs: Lowery is another counterweight to Warren's stance on homosexuality, though he doesn't go quite so far as Robinson. He thinks gays should be ordained in the Methodist church. He also supports civil unions but opposes gay marriage. "Like a whole lot of people, I have some difficulty with the term 'gay marriage' because ... deeply rooted in my heart and mind, marriage is associated with 'man and woman,' " he said in December.

Who: Sharon Watkins
When: Wednesday
Where: Washington National Cathedral
Sect: Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Background: The Christian Church is a small Protestant denomination with nearly 700,000 members in the United States and Canada. It's pretty liberal and stands in "full communion"—meaning that it shares fundamental doctrines—with the United Church of Christ, which was the denomination of Obama's church in Chicago. Watkins was elected president of the Disciples in 2005, making her the first woman to lead a mainline Protestant sect. Obama met Watkins in 2007 at a meeting of ministers, where she gave the closing prayer.

Beliefs: Watkins has spoken out against torture and the war in Iraq. She hasn't taken a public stance on gay marriage, nor has her church—each congregation is self-governed.

If compromise is the goal, then this lineup should more than mollify the Warren-haters. He may still have the most prominent speaking gig, but the others are getting high billing, too. Anyone tuning into the Sunday HBO special will see a gay bishop, and anyone who sticks around to see Anderson Cooper's take on the swearing-in will see a civil rights leader. And while Wednesday's National Prayer Service isn't exactly prime-time viewing, the nod to progressive ecumenicalism—Watkins says she will try not to exclude other faiths in her sermon—won't go unnoticed.

As for the atheists? Maybe the inaugural committee can invite them to speak as well.

Correction, Jan. 13, 2009: This article originally called Robinson the Episcopal Church's first openly gay pastor. In fact, he was its first openly gay bishop. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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