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Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2001 / 9 Shevat, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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The freedom not to say 'amen' -- JESUS was at the inauguration. Not everyone was pleased.

The Rev. Franklin Graham began his invocation with the nondenominational words of King David's last blessing -- "Yours, O G-d, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the majesty and the splendor" -- but he ended with something more sectarian: "We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

A second clergyman sounded a similar note.

"We respectfully submit this humble prayer," the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Methodist minister from Texas, concluded his benediction, "in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ. Let all who agree say, 'Amen.' "

But of course not all of us do agree. Some 15 percent of Americans are either non-Christian or nonbelievers and would find it impossible to answer "Amen" to any prayer proclaiming the supremacy of Jesus. And so, you will not be surprised to learn, there were objections.

The inaugural prayers were "inappropriate and insensitive," said Barry Lynn, who heads Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Caldwell's prayer in particular was "astonishing" for being so "exclusionary" -- for creating "a two-tiered system for Americans: those able to say amen -- Christians -- and those who can't."

Alan Dershowitz wass offended, too. "The first act by the new administration was in defiance of our Constitution," he fumed in a Los Angeles Times column. The preachers' "particularistic and parochial language" was a slap at Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Shintos, and others -- a "plain message" that "Bush's America is a Christian nation and that non-Christians are welcome [only] as a tolerated minority rather than as fully equal citizens."

Equally outraged was The New Republic. It execrated the Jesus talk as "crushing Christological thuds" that "barred millions of Americans from their own amens" and that exposed as a fraud "the spirit of inclusion in which the conservatives propound their religiosity."

No doubt all this ire is sincere. Still, I wonder: Would Dershowitz or TNR have been as appalled by prayers in Jesus' name if Al Gore had been the one taking the oath? Or is open devotion to Jesus a problem only when it is associated with Republicans?

Think back to all the commentary, much of it mocking or disapproving, when Bush announced during a debate in Iowa that the thinker he most identified with was "Christ, because he changed my heart." Yet there was no distress -- and no snickering -- when Gore had declared a few months earlier that the "bedrock" of his approach to "any important question" is to ask "WWJD . . . what would Jesus do?"

Nor do I recall any Dershowitz blast at the incoming Clinton administration in 1993 after the Rev. Billy Graham (Franklin Graham's father) offered an inaugural prayer "in the name of the one who was called Wonderful Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace" (a passage from Isaiah that Christians read as a reference to Jesus). And when, at the 1997 Clinton-Gore inaugural, Graham prayed "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit," The New Republic did not protest his "crushing Christological thuds."

Let me be clear: I am not saying that all antipathy to Jesus-specific prayer is in reality just a disguise for antipathy to Republicans. I know from first-hand experience that many American Jews feel genuine unease when they hear appeals to Jesus, especially when they are uttered in an official setting. Some resent the reminder that they are different from their neighbors. Some, as Dershowitz's words suggest, are offended by the implication that America is a Christian country, or that "normal" Americans embrace Christianity. Still others find Jesus-talk vaguely threatening, a hint that they are not really welcome here -- perhaps, at some level, not really safe.

But none of these attitudes justifies telling Christians not to pray as Christians. Like it or not, American Jews -- like American Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists -- are different from their neighbors. This is a Christian country -- it was founded by Christians and built on broad Christian principles. Threatening? Far from it: It is in precisely this Christian country that Jews have known the most peaceful, prosperous, and successful existence in their long history.

In America, a non-Christian need not answer "Amen" to an explicitly Christian prayer. We are free to remain silent -- a freedom that countless Jews, living in far less tolerant times and places, could only dream of. This is a society where members of minority faiths live and worship without fear, secure in the hospitality and liberty that America extends to all religions. If a rabbi, invited to deliver a public prayer, invoked "the G-d of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" -- or if an imam opened "in the name of Allah, the merciful and compassionate" -- no reasonable Christian would object. Why then should anyone take it amiss when a Christian prays in the name of Jesus?

Religious diversity does not mean that no American should ever have to listen to prayers that are different from his own. On the contrary: It means that no American is entitled to try to suppress the prayers of others. "Jesus" should not be a forbidden word in this land. Not even at a presidential inauguration.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment on this column by clicking here.

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