It was no surprise to me or to anyone else who knows Adam that he did an excellent job. In some sense he was representing mainline Protestant churches, which have suffered significant declines in membership numbers in the last several decades. Because Adam's church now attracts some 18,000 people, COR is seen as an example of how mainline churches can be successful, at least in terms of size and programs.
And a worship service was exactly the right place -- even if there was an interfaith atmosphere to that service -- for Adam to have called for a renewal of religious faith. Here's a bit of what he said, though I'm ignoring here the great way he drew on the image of Moses as a leader:
“The theme of this year’s inauguration was ‘Faith in the Future of America.’ But in this service, we come together to acknowledge that in order for America to have a future, we’ll first need to find a deep and abiding faith in God. ... It is this faith that helps us discover the kinds of visions that are worthy of our great nation, worthy of the sacrifices we make. It is this faith that sustains us when we feel like giving up – a faith that comes from trusting in the words of Jesus, who said, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
At the end, he spoke directly to President Obama:
“There’s a lot of darkness in the world. Lead us to be a compassionate people, to be concerned for the marginalized. Help us rediscover a vision for America that is so compelling that it unites us and calls us to realize the full potential of this country to be a ‘shining city upon a hill.'"
At that last phrase I was a bit distracted and even disappointed that Adam would return to it. And I'll briefly tell you why.
It finds its initial origins in the Beatitudes, part of the Sermon on the Mount found in the fifth chapter of the gospel of Matthew. But its more recent usage stems from a 1630 sermon preached by a Puritan, John Winthrop.
This vision offered by Winthrop was not just theocratic in nature but also carried with it the idea that God had specifically chosen what would become the United States to be a model for the world. I would argue that in some ways, it even entails a usurpation of the task given to Israel to be a "model to the nations."
Over the years, politicians of nearly every party have used this phrase as a way of suggesting that somehow God has uniquely chosen America to be holy, to be God's own country.
And whenever I've heard such theological claptrap, whether from Ronald Reagan or Al Gore, both of whom, with many others, were guilty of it, I've complained in public about it. (Reagan seemed to drag out the phrase for every other speech.)
Yes, one can imagine a benign and even inspiring use of the phrase to indicate a nation that would lead the world in defending human freedom and foundational human rights. And I have no doubt that's what Adam meant. But use of that particular phrase inevitably calls up something less innocent, less edifying. For those aware of the Puritan origin of the phrase and its misuse over the years by politicians arguing for an American exceptionism awarded by God, the phrase is inevitably off-putting.
And because Adam is a wise man with a generous heart, I am confident he will forgive me for pointing this out. But go back and read the sermon. It's one worth paying attention to, for sure. (Or, here's a link to a YouTube video of Adam delivering the sermon.)
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When people of faith give money to organizations doing work either in this country or overseas, they have an obligation to know at least in general how their money is spent. In Uganda, as this documentary makes clear, some money from Americans who would identify themselves as evangelical Christians is going to help spread hatred of gay and lesbian people. It's a shameful use of money and needs to stop.
* * *P.S.: My latest National Catholic Reporter now is online. To read it, click here.