Two news items in recent days caught my attention because they both deal with something that normally doesn’t make headlines: prayer. Private prayer, no problem; communal prayer, on the other hand, can be highly controversial, as the case of Pastor Louie Giglio shows.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee, acting on input from President Obama himself, selected Giglio to deliver the benediction at the President’s upcoming inauguration. Giglio, the pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, had come to the attention of the President because of his work to end human trafficking. In 1995, the evangelical minister from Atlanta started a movement known as the ‘Passion Movement’ which targeted college-age students. Not just an evangelism tool, the Passion Movement was intended by Giglio to inspire students to tackle head on one of the world’s greatest social ills: global slavery and all that entails, from forced labour and child labour to sex trafficking. Millions of dollars to this end have been raised by both the Passion Movement and Giglio’s own church. At a recent event called ‘Passion 2013’ held in Atlanta 60,000 college students made a commitment to end global slavery. When the Presidential Inaugural Committee approached Giglio to mount the “most prominent prayer platform” in the land and invoke God’s blessing on the President’s Second Term, Giglio accepted, honoured to be chosen.
But then gay rights groups brought to light a sermon Giglio had preached on the topic of homosexuality in the mid-1990s, entitled “In Search of a Standard Christian Response to Homosexuality.” Giglio quickly withdrew his acceptance of the President’s invitation. Whether he was pressured to, he didn’t say. I haven’t listened to Giglio’s sermon, but those who have, claim that his response to the question of homosexuality is a biblically-based response, yet delivered in a “pastor-ly,” compassionate manner. The Presidential Inaugural Committee is now looking for someone to deliver the benediction whose “beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.” In a week’s time, the US President will place his hand on two Bibles stacked together–one owned by Abraham Lincoln and the other owned by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.–and take the oath of office. Giglio has been deemed unacceptable by the Obama administration for preaching the view of homosexuality found in the pages of those very books. Irony of ironies!!
The second news item which caught my attention concerns John Walker Lindh, the so-called “American Taliban” who, along with forty of his fellow Muslim inmates incarcerated in the high security federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, has been awarded the right to gather daily for unsupervised communal prayers. This is the John Walker Lindh who entered Afghanistan in 2001 to help the Taliban build a “pure Islamic state” and who trained in an al-Qaeda training camp where he met Bin Laden, or so he later claimed. Captured by US forces, he pled guilty to supplying services and carrying explosives for the Taliban government, and is now serving a 20-year-sentence in Terre Haute. Citing security reasons, prison officials from 2007 on allowed Muslim prisoners to meet for communal prayers only once a week. A lawsuit was launched in 2009 by two Muslim inmates to restore daily communal prayer. When Lindh joined the prayer lawsuit in 2010, the case suddenly became more high profile. Lindh claimed that he belongs to the Hanbali school of Islam which requires five communal prayers daily. Lindh and his fellow Muslim prisoners won their lawsuit the other day. Federal judge Jane Magnus-Stinson ruled in their favour, claiming that the prison warden was violating a 1993 law that bans the government from curtailing religious speech without showing a compelling interest. Prison officials are considering an appeal.
Other than the issue of communal prayer, these two news items bear little, if any, relationship to each other. And yet, viewed together they present–I would say–something of a “snapshot” of religious tolerance in America. In “religiously tolerant” America, those who hold to a Bible-based view of homosexuality are being driven from the public square. And that’s troubling.