Gene Robinson’s Scary Prayer

First published at on January 23, 2009

When Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson was invited to deliver the invocation at the inaugural kickoff event, I expected some conservative evangelicals to complain. And they did.

Forget the fact that Robinson’s invitation seemed like a token gesture after the controversial choice of evangelical pastor (and Prop-8 supporter) Rick Warren for the inaugural invocation—a far more prominent platform.

Forget the fact that Warren himself praised the choice of the openly gay bishop as demonstrating the new president’s “genuine commitment to bringing all Americans of goodwill together in search of common ground.”

Indeed, for the moment, forget common ground. As one right-wing blogger put it, a good evangelical doesn’t seek common ground with the “Bishop of Sodom.”

And so they complained. Not only about Obama’s choice of Robinson, but about the prayer itself [full prayer at ]

What grieved them so? Was it the prayer’s failure to mention Jesus? Its lack of scriptural references? Its line about blessing the nation with anger—“anger at discrimination, at home and abroad, against refugees and immigrants, women, people of color, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people”?

Yes, yes, and yes.

But those were not the parts that worried the evangelicals who contacted me a few days ago. They were concerned that Robinson’s prayer expressed a theme that they “have been trying to warn people about for some time now,” and they wanted my comment.

What is this worrisome theme? What sinister agenda had the “Bishop of Sodom” expressed in his prayer, wittingly or unwittingly?

It turns out that the troubling line was this: “Bless us with freedom from mere tolerance, replacing it with a genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences.”

Puzzled? The line strikes most of us as innocuous, or even benign. “Genuine respect and warm embrace of our differences”—who can argue with that?

But that’s not the part that bothered them. They were worried about “freedom from mere tolerance.”

We will not appreciate the right-wing mindset—or for that matter, the culture wars—until we understand why that sentiment scares our opponents.

When Robinson says “Bless us with freedom mere tolerance,” our opponents hear “It is not enough for you to tolerate us. You ought to embrace us. You ought to approve of who we are, which can’t be easily teased apart from what we do. After all, our relationships are a deep and important fact about our lives—just like yours are. So what we are asking is for you to give up your deep conviction that these relationships are sinful and instead affirm them as good.”

That is in fact precisely what we are (or should be) asking for, and precisely what Bishop Robinson is praying for.

No, we don’t seek such affirmation because we need our opponents’ validation. Rather, we seek it because it reflects the truth: our relationships are just as good as theirs.

We seek it for another reason as well, one that frightens them even more. Statistically speaking, some of their kids will turn out gay. I want those kids to know that there’s nothing wrong with them. I want them to be able, insofar as possible, to count on their parents for affirmation and support.

And that’s where the culture war really is a zero-sum game, and “common ground” is impossible without dramatic concession: we want their kids to believe something that is diametrically opposed to what they want them to believe. There’s no point in sugarcoating that conflict.

If I were religious, I might pray over it, as Warren and Robinson do—although when it comes down to specifics, it seems they are praying for very different things.

Or are they? One need not be a relativist to recognize that we all have an imperfect grasp of the truth, a truth that we nevertheless seek. When we find it—or at least, firmly believe that we have—we don’t want it to be merely “tolerated.”

That’s as true of Rick Warren as it is of Gene Robinson.

As I pointed out to my evangelical caller, I’m sure that he wants me, a skeptic, to move beyond “mere tolerance” of Christianity to embrace Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior.

No one who values truth wants it to be merely tolerated. We “tolerate” nuisances; we embrace truth.

That doesn’t mean that we believe that truth ought to be forced upon people, as if that were even possible. And this is where I think our opponents’ fears, while palpable, are ultimately unfounded.

We want them to move from mere tolerance to embracing the truth. They want us to do the same—although they see the truth quite differently. We will attempt to persuade each other.

But we cannot force truth—not by legislation, not by court decisions, and certainly, not by prayer.