Whole lot of praying going on

For a country with founding fathers who wanted to keep the government separate from the varied organized practices of religion, there certainly was a whole lot of polarizing praying going on at the inauguration of Barack Obama as president.

There were only two prayers, actually.

But they were show-off prayers, which put me in mind of a passage from the Bible.

That would be from the book of Matthew, Chapter 6, Verses 5 through 8: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full.

"But when you pray, go into your room and close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him."

Rick Warren, the fundamentalist and evangelic Christian preacher of the open collar and facial hair who sells tons of books, gave the inaugural invocation. His was a selection that many in Obama's left-wing base resented.

That's because Warren thinks gay marriage is wrong. He has said that the Bible doesn't permit a physically abused spouse to get a divorce, though, golly, he personally wishes it did.

But Obama genuinely seems to like Warren and even is said to have prayed with him. Obama sees Warren as a moderating voice of the fundamentalist and evangelical American Christian community. Thus the new president views Warren as a valuable political ally in bringing the country together, away from those "childish things," to attack our dire economic circumstance.

Thus Warren's selection had to do with the politics of praying.

And that is getting dangerously close to the intersection of government and religion that our founders eschewed.

More to the point: Warren's prayer was long-winded, self-important and self-serving. It was more stagecraft than sacred supplication. You might even liken it to the street-corner babbling rejected in the book of Matthew.

Warren would have been better off to have kept it shorter, simpler, sweeter -- or, in the phrasing of the Scripture, to have gone to his room and closed the door.

So then came the benediction. It was delivered by the Rev. Joseph Lowery, a longtime United Methodist preacher and co-founder with the late Martin Luther King Jr. of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He represented the left, one supposes, at least to the extent that the so-called prophetic ministry of the left walked the walk on civil rights.

It turned out that Lowery offended some people with a showy little bit of praying of his own.

What he was doing was riffing on an old blues line about unfair treatment of black people: "If you're black, get in the back; if you're brown, stick around; if you're white, you're all right."

Lowery prayed that those differences would disappear, even adding a politically correct addendum of hope that "yellow" would become "mellow."

While I personally enjoyed his little tribute to an ancient form of hip-hop, Lowery probably would have been better off taking this prayer to his room as well.

So am I against prayer? Heavens, no. I'm simply inclined to tune out public praying.

And I agree with that former U.S. senator from Arkansas, Dale Bumpers.

He once said there would always be prayer in school, no matter what the courts said, as long as there were pop tests.

John Brummett, an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock, is author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.