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Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

Beyond tweets and text messages: Many young believers evolve into accidental hermits

It was the feast of St. Mary, Mother of the Church, so writer Leah Libresco and some friends decided to have a traditional procession through their neighborhood, while praying the Rosary out loud.

"I live in New York City, where this was still not the weirdest thing that anyone would see that day," said Libresco, speaking earlier this winter at the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C.

The procession received some puzzled looks along Broadway, near Lincoln Center. Their images of St. Mary sure didn't match the vision of womanhood seen in advertisements they passed.

This wasn't a public statement. All these New Yorkers were doing was celebrating the feast together, creating a face-to-face community with faith, food and fellowship. There's more to life than sitting at home, firing tweets and text messages at the world.

Long ago, Libresco explained, ascetic monks called "stylites" believed they should spend their lives fasting and praying while living atop pillars. This kind of solitude, obviously, was not for the average believer.

Today, many Americans have become "accidental stylites," she said. They are isolated from one another by jammed schedules, job demands and all those digital devices that were supposed to aid communication.

"A lot of folks wind up living hermetic lives, living their faith alone -- nakedly before God -- without the assistance of a monastic superior, or a community or anything else," she said. While monks carefully choose lives of solitude, that path would be "a terrible idea for the rest of us."

Once known as a popular atheist blogger, Libresco began exploring spiritual disciplines after converting to Catholicism in 2012. Her new book is called "Building the Benedict Option: A Guide to Gathering Two or Three Together in His Name." The title is a reference to journalist Rod Dreher's bestseller "The Benedict Option," which challenged modern believers to build local support networks -- involving education, the arts, even small businesses -- in an increasingly post-Christian America. Dreher (a friend of mine for 20 years) wrote the foreword for Libresco's book.

Building on Dreher's manifesto, Libresco wants to encourage Christian hospitality in settings more intense than young-adult gatherings offering shallow chitchat over wine and cheese.

"My goal, always, in building the Benedict Option, is not to turn away from the world," she wrote. "Feeling the need for the thicker community of the Benedict Option … isn't the same as rejecting the world or fearing it. … A claustrophobic feeling can creep into your spiritual life when you practice it alone."

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

At March for Life, embracing ancient doctrines reveals modern tensions

Just over a century ago, a Methodist leader on the church's Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public morals noticed an empty lot facing the U.S. Capitol and thought it would be a fine place to do some lobbying.

The Methodist Building was finished in 1923 and 100 Maryland Ave., N.E., soon became an even more strategic address when the Supreme Court moved next door. The prohibition cause faded, however, and in recent decades the five-story limestone building has housed liberal Protestant activists of all kinds, as well as Kids 4 Peace, the Islamic Society of America, Creation Justice Ministries and others.

It's an unusual site for a March for Life prayer meeting. But, year after year, the Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality meets there to mark the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade.

Defending life means "walking in a way that is out of step with the world," said retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker, former president of the denomination's Board of Discipleship. While there are secular people who oppose abortion, he focused his Jan. 18 sermon on why this issue has become so crucial to modern Christians who strive to affirm ancient Christian doctrines.

"Unless a part of the church is compromised by being conformed to the world," said Whitaker, "becoming a Christian profoundly changes one's perception of reality and one's behavior. … That is why the church is loved by many, as well as hated by many."

When the March for Life makes headlines, it is almost always for political reasons, such as this year's remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and a video-chat from President Donald Trump.

The massive march also serves as a hub for dozens of smaller events, with groups ranging from Episcopalians for Life to Feminists for Life, from Pro-Life Humanists to the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. Almost all mainstream religious groups -- including progressive flocks -- include a pro-life caucus of some kind.

For decades, United Methodists were powerful supporters of the interfaith Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, ties that were cut by delegates at the denomination's 2016 General Conference. That same conference defeated a motion to retain an old affirmation of Roe v. Wade.

Friendship trumps partisan politics at 2018 National Prayer Breakfast

Friendship trumps partisan politics at 2018 National Prayer Breakfast

In the world of "woke" Twitter, House Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana is a white supremacist, fundamentalist, homophobic, NRA lackey who has tested God's patience by opposing gun control.

Comedy writer Marcella Arguello was blunt, responding to breaking news when Scalise was seriously wounded in an attack on the GOP baseball team. She tweeted that if a few old "conservative white men have to die in order to get the gun control issue discussed then I'm willing to take that risk." She later deleted the tweet.

The mood could not have been more different at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, when Rep. Cedric Richmond of New Orleans offered an affectionate introduction before Scalise -- still on crutches -- rose to speak.

People keep asking, said Richmond, how they can be such close friends. One leads the Congressional Black Caucus. The other once led the conservative House Republican Study Committee. They disagree, Richmond conceded, on about "80 percent" of the issues facing America.

The key, he said, is to understand that faith can transcend politics.

"We don't differ on the end goals -- helping the needy and protecting our citizens and caring for our elders," said Richmond. "We don't disagree on where we want to end up. Most times, we disagree on how to get there. …

"Faith allows us to put purpose first. We put purpose over politics, we put purpose over profit, because at the end of the day we know that we're here on earth to fulfill a purpose -- to make this world a better place, and make this country a more perfect union."

The two men met in the Louisiana House of Representatives and came together, from opposite sides of the aisle, to help their state recover from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. To this day, said Richmond, they are united in the belief that "we are all created in the likeness of God, no matter what country, no matter what state, no matter what city, no matter what zip code, no matter what block."

Soulful voice on a Capitol Hill sidewalk

The atmosphere on Capitol Hill's brick sidewalks stays frosty year round as the power-walking professionals rush along in suits of wool-blend armor, their earphones in place, smartphones loaded and eyes focused dead ahead.

But things changed at the corner of Second Street and Massachusetts Avenue NE. That's where streams of pedestrians converge near Union Station, the U.S. Senate office buildings, the Federal Judiciary Center, the Heritage Foundation and other buildings packed with prestige and power.

For the past decade, this was where the late Peter Bis kept his office, sitting on a blue plastic crate under an oak tree, sharing cigarettes, coffee and conspiracy theories with whoever passed by, greeting most of them by name. He was the friendly homeless man with his own website, business cards and a life story that -- even when warped by schizophrenia -- touched thousands.

"Hey professor! Happy Easter," he shouted a few years ago. I nodded and returned the greeting.

A few paces later, Bis hailed me again. "Wait a minute," he said. "Orthodox Easter isn't 'til next week this year, right?"

He was right, of course. Had I shared that personal detail with him or did he glean that tidbit of liturgical minutia from one of the newspapers he read, day after day? Anyone who knew him could describe similar mysterious encounters.

That precisely what people have been doing lately at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, a block from that oak. The parish held a memorial Mass for Bis last week, a month after he died of a heart attack at age 61. Worshippers entering the quiet sanctuary passed a copy of a painting of Bis called "The Contemplation of Justice."

Over the years, many people offered advice about how he could get off the street and put his savant-like memory to good use, said Deacon Gary Bockweg, who delivered the homily. At one point, Bockweg suggested that he work as a Wal-Mart greeter, but Bis said he was over-qualified for that job.

Bis often said he had a doctorate and once taught at a university. Was that true? After all, he also volunteered memories about a romance with Princess Diana, his years working as a spy, clashes with Vatican leaders and his origins as an extraterrestrial. There was lots of evidence that he really had worked in a shipyard in Oregon.

In his own way, Bis truly was a teacher, stressed Bockweg.

"He taught us that everyone we walk past deserves to be recognized as a real person, even if their appearance is deceiving," said the deacon, in his sermon. "If Pete had sat in silence, looking down at the sidewalk, or if he'd called for our attention with less friendly, less charming words, we would probably never have gotten to know the Pete inside there. ...

"We've been walking past his vacant spot under the tree for a few weeks now ... each day growing a little more accustomed to the emptiness there, and that unheard greeting. Over the years we had come to take Pete's presence for granted. And now, we're reminded that we're all just passing through this life."

When Bis first visited St. Joseph's, he was neatly dressed and well groomed. He took Communion in Mass and seemed in control of his life, although he remained quiet.

Things were different when he returned months later, limping and "using an empty wheel chair for a walker," said Bockweg. "Then the wheelchair started to fill up with bags and books. And then suitcases piled on top of that. ... He also grew more talkative, and we got to know him."

His friends remember him fondly, but with a touch of guilt. It's hard to know how to help the homeless, especially those fierce in their resolve to go their own way.

That was Peter Bis.

Yet something also drove him to reach out, to accept some gifts and offer others the gift of his memory and attention, said parishioner Joe Jones, who sang the Irish lament "Danny Boy" at the end of the Mass in honor of his friend.

"Peter Bis was a gentle soul. ... There was certainly much more there than a grunt and a curse word," said Jones. "The last thing people do today when talking to a stranger is call them by name. That's how Pete connected. ... He called us by name and that slowed us down. That made Pete real to us."

That changing God lobby in DC

Believe it or not, politicians used to be able to assume that when the U.S. Catholic bishops spoke on an issue, that meant that the nation's Catholics had spoken. That was so mid-20th century.

Before long, Catholic liberals -- backed by Playboy's Hugh Hefner and others -- would dare to create a pro-abortion-rights group called Catholics for Free Choice.

Before long, American Catholics would become so divided that traditionalists felt the need to form a group called Priests for Life.

Catholics were not the only believers rocked by the earthquakes of the 1960s and '70s. Evangelicals ventured out into the public square, inspired first by a born-again Democrat from Georgia and then by the Hollywood Republican who promised to defeat him. The Protestant mainline declined and then splintered. Pluralism and globalization tested old coalitions and inspired old ones.

All of this caused radical changes in the nation's capital. The number of organizations engaged in advocacy work linked to religious issues has increased fivefold in four decades -- from 37 in 1970 to at least 211 today.

"No matter how small the group, everyone feels the need to open an office in Washington, D.C., so that their voices can be heard," said political scientist Allen D. Hertzke of the University of Oklahoma, lead researcher for a new study of religious advocacy groups conducted by the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life. "All of this is evidence of the growing pluralism on the American scene and the fact that religion is playing an even more prominent role in our politics."

According to this survey, Catholics of one stripe or another are behind one out of five (19 percent) of advocacy groups with offices in Washington, D.C., and evangelical Protestants support almost as many (18 percent). While 12 percent of these groups are Jewish, only 8 percent represent the old Protestant mainline. In fact, Muslims support 17 advocacy groups, while the historic mainline churches now have 16.

Hertzke said it's significant that the largest category -- one quarter of the groups studied -- consists either of interfaith groups or organizations that work on religious issues that involve believers in multiple faith traditions. Nearly two-thirds of these groups work on both domestic and foreign issues.

While one church-state lawyer's "advocacy" is often another's "lobbying," 82 percent of the groups in the Pew Forum study operate as nonprofit, tax-exempt organizations. Thus, they focus most of their work on public policy issues broadly defined, as opposed to specific legislation or candidates.

However, the survey's broad definition of "religious advocacy" included "attempts to influence, or urge the public to influence, specific legislation, whether the legislation is before a legislative body, such as the U.S. Congress or any state legislature, or before the public as a referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment or similar measure." It also included "efforts to affect public policy, such as activities aimed at the White House and federal agencies, litigation designed to advance policy goals, and education or mobilization of religious constituencies on particular issues."

It was easy to describe the groups doing this work in the years after World War II. They were "largely denominational," explained Hertzke, each representing a specific body of believers -- Catholics, Jews, Baptists or mainline Protestants, such as Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and others.

By the start of the 1970s, evangelicals were gaining power through the growth of nondenominational groups, educational institutions and media ministries. Then Roe v. Wade changed the shape of American politics -- especially for evangelicals and traditional Catholics. Meanwhile, President Jimmy Carter inspired some Baptists and infuriated others. The ground was moving.

Many of the advocacy groups launched during this period were ecumenical or interfaith, uniting liberal and conservative believers on opposite sides of hot-button social issues. At the same time, some historic churches began to splinter.

In the '90s, religious activism went global in a world transformed by the fall of Soviet Union, digital communications and growing Third World concerns about poverty, human rights, AIDS and religious liberty. Meanwhile, the face of religion in American began to grow more complex before and after 9/11.

"There has definitely been a globalization of religious advocacy work, with all of these trends and issues making their way back to Washington," said Hertzke. As a result, "ecumenical and interfaith work is now normal. We all live and work in the same world, now. Everything is connected."

Alveda King's old dream

Fox News star Glenn Beck staged the show at the Lincoln Memorial, and then fired up his flock by claiming, "Something that is beyond man is happening. America today begins to turn back to God." Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin almost stole the show with a political shot at President Barack Obama, telling her fans, "You too know that we must not fundamentally transform America as some would want. We must restore America and restore her honor!"

But there was only one African-American preacher present whose last name was spelled K-I-N-G. There was only one orator who could infuriate pundits simply by standing with Beck on the 47th anniversary of her martyred uncle's "I Have a Dream" speech.

Tears of rage? Tears of joy? The Rev. Alveda King knew she would cause both by linking the Rev. Martin Luther King's classic cadences with the religious and cultural issues that loomed over what Beck insisted was a nonpolitical rally. Once a Democrat in the Georgia Legislature, the evangelical minister now leads African-American outreach programs for the Catholic group Priests For Life.

First, she reminded listeners that her "Uncle Martin" had compared America's promise of equal protection to a check marked "insufficient funds." But when, she asked, will "we know that the check Uncle Martin spoke of is good?"

"We will know when prayer is once again welcome in the public squares of America and in our schools. We will know when our children are no longer in mortal peril on our streets and in our classrooms, and in the wombs of our mothers," she said.

"We will know when righteousness rolls down like waters, and justice like a mighty stream. Yes, I too have a dream ... that America will repent of the sin of racism and return to honor. I have a dream that white privilege will become human privilege and that people of every ethnic blend will receive everyone as brothers and sisters in the love of God. I have a dream that America will pray, and God will forgive us our sins and revive our land."

Critics were not kind.

Chatting with MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, columnist Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post dismissed Alveda King as a "convenient figurehead or puppet. ... She's a fundamentalist, very conservative Christian. ... She's estranged from the rest of the King family, and from the keepers of his legacy."

And in a Washington Post essay before the rally, Martin Luther King III anticipated the coming efforts to embrace the causes now identified with the first family of civil rights. His father's dream, he stressed, "rejected hateful rhetoric and all forms of bigotry or discrimination, whether directed at race, faith, nationality, sexual orientation or political beliefs. ... Throughout his life he advocated compassion for the poor, nonviolence, respect for the dignity of all people and peace for humanity."

For Alveda King, these debates are signs of painful divisions -- many of them theological -- inside the Civil Rights Movement, black churches and the extended King family. While the late Coretta Scott King supported abortion rights and gay rights, other members of the family have fiercely questioned whether the views of her husband would have evolved in that direction.

One debate, for example, focuses on the significance of the decision by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to accept the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood in 1966. Alveda King and other opponents of abortion note that this was six years before Roe v. Wade and only three years after a Planned Parenthood pamphlet warned that, "An abortion kills the life of a baby after it has begun."

America's ongoing battles over abortion, insisted Alveda King, are one of many symptoms that her uncle's work remains unfinished.

"Our material gains seem to be going the way of our moral losses," she said, in her Aug. 28 sermon. "We are still suffering from the great evil divide of racism. Our children are suffering in failing school systems. Our sons and daughters are being incarcerated at astronomical rates. Sickness, disease and poverty of the spirit, soul and body are plaguing our communities. The procreative foundation of marriage is being threatened, and the wombs of our mothers have become places where the blood of our children is shed in a 'womb war' that threatens the fabric of our society. ...

"Yet, we are not without hope. Faith, hope and love are not dead in America. Hallelujah."

Breakfast prayer wars

The way President Barack Obama sees things, Americans should be able to find unity in prayer -- even if they disagree on the details of faith and politics. That's true in the current debates about health care, poverty and even gay marriage, he said, at the recent National Prayer Breakfast.

"Surely we can agree to find common ground when possible, parting ways when necessary," said Obama. "But in doing so, let us be guided by our faith and by prayer. For while prayer can buck us up when we are down, keep us calm in a storm, while prayer can stiffen our spines to surmount an obstacle -- and I assure you I'm praying a lot these days -- prayer can also do something else. It can touch our hearts with humility. ...

"Through faith, but not through faith alone, we can unite people to serve the common good."

But while the president preached unity, this year's National Prayer Breakfast was surrounded by controversy. There were signs this event on the semi-official Washington, D.C., calendar may no longer be able to serve as a safe forum in which a wide variety of religious and political leaders can unite their voices. The breakfasts began in 1953 and every president since Dwight Eisenhower has taken part.

Before the event, the leaders of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to the White House and to Congressional leaders calling for a boycott. They also urged C-Span not to televise the breakfast. Meanwhile, a coalition of gay-rights activists and religious liberals announced a series of alternative "American Prayer Hour" events in Washington and other cities nationwide.

Both groups focused intense criticism on The Fellowship, the nondenominational Christian organization that sponsors the prayer breakfast and similar networking events in Washington and around the world. The key is that numerous Ugandan leaders are active in Fellowship activities in that country, including the politician who introduced anti-gay legislation that includes capital punishment for some offenses.

The ethics group's letter accused this organization -- often called "The Family" -- of being a "cult-like secret society with unknown motivations and backing" that preaches an "unconventional brand of Christianity focusing on meeting Jesus 'man-to-man.' " The American Prayer Hour coalition simply called it a "secretive fundamentalist organization." The New York Times noted that the group has no "identifiable Internet site, no office number and no official spokesman."

However, some religious conservatives have also expressed doubts about The Fellowship. In an investigation of its property holdings in and around Washington, World magazine called attention to The Fellowship's "muddy theology," its "distain for the established church" and an emphasis on privacy that "grew into an obsessive culture of secrecy."

Describing the participants in Fellowship events, Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma told World: "Some of them are Muslims. Some of them are Christians. But they meet in the spirit of Jesus, so it's not a denominational thing, it's not even a Christian thing, it's a Jesus thing."

The ultimate issue is that this organization needs to admit that it exists and talk openly about its activities and goals, said journalist Jeff Sharlet, author of "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power." It's a sign of progress, for example, that many Americans who are active in the organization have rejected the Ugandan legislation and communicated their dismay to their contacts in Uganda.

When it comes to the National Prayer Breakfast, the Fellowship's leaders "should go completely public," said Sharlet, by email. They should "acknowledge their existence, the fact that this is their event, make their account of it accountable (it was not Ike's idea), explain the process by which people are invited and ... make explicit that this is about consecrating leadership to Jesus. Everybody is welcome, but it's about Jesus."

This kind of transparency might accelerate what already seems to be happening. Some leaders -- on the left and right -- might reject the big-tent approach offered by the National Prayer Breakfast and create their own events, which could focus on more explicit messages about faith and politics.

If the Fellowship's leaders are truly "serious about what they're about," noted Sharlet, this "would be great by their lights. They would lose a lot of clout, but the prayer breakfast movement would at last become an actual movement, of many strands."

Prayers in a minefield (civil religion II)

Phyllis Tickle tried to pay close attention to the prayers at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, which isn't surprising since she has written a whole shelf of books on rites of public and private prayer. The problem was that she didn't hear much in the way of traditional prayer, in terms of clergy offering words of praise and petition to God. Instead, the prayers sounded like lectures or mini-sermons aimed at the masses on the National Mall.

"Did I think the official prayers were disasters? No," said Tickle, author of, among many relevant works, "Prayer Is a Place: America's Religious Landscape Observed."

"I just thought that they lacked the majesty of a psalm before the throne of God, substituting instead ... the mundane and plebian commentary of a human being to other human beings about an established lists of errors and of desirable aims, with a little advice to God thrown in. ... I'm not sure why preachers think they have to do that."

The clergy in the rites surrounding the inauguration, of course, faced the challenge of praying in a political minefield. On one side were the atheists and secularists whose lawsuits failed to keep religious language out of the proceedings. On the other side were religious activists -- liberals and conservatives -- poised to judge whether the prayers made the grade, politically and doctrinally.

Pity the poor shepherd who has to please his own flock, as well as the New York Times editorial page.

Most of the early analysis focused on the decision to invite the Rev. Rick Warren -- an evangelical leader who rejects Obama's support for abortion and gay rights -- to offer the invocation. Warren opened by blending a theme from his own bestseller, "The Purpose Driven Life," with snippets of Jewish and Muslim prayers.

"Almighty God, our Father, everything we see and everything we can't see exists because of you alone. It all comes from you. It all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory. History is your story," he said. "Scripture tells us, 'Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God. The Lord is One.' And you are the compassionate and merciful one. And you are loving to everyone you have made."

The prayer also included words of thanksgiving for the election of an African-American president, an appeal for economic justice and concern for the environment. The California megachurch pastor then dared to close with clear references to Jesus -- in Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish and English -- and the Lord's Prayer.

The benediction was by the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a strong voice from the Civil Rights Movement. He began with the poetic final lines of the "Negro National Anthem," the classic "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and then ended with an edgy poem based on the work of blues singer Big Bill Broonzy.

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning," he concluded, "we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say, 'Amen.' "

In between, Lowery offered sharp shots of political commentary, including a pronouncement that America has recently "sown the seeds of greed," blown by the "wind of greed and corruption" that have caused the nation to "reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption." Thus, he asked God to "help us to make choices on the side of love, not hate; on the side of inclusion, not exclusion; tolerance, not intolerance."

None of this, stressed Tickle, was all that unusual. Prayers written for use in these kinds of giant civic events are almost always "rather didactic" and "content driven." As a rule, they also tend to be long.

On this historic inauguration day, anyone seeking the most fervent expressions of faith, hope and love needed to hear the voices in the crowd, not the leaders in the pulpit.

"The real prayers were written by the people on that mall and across the nation, with their bodies, with their voices, with their cries and with their tears," said Tickle. "That was the religious experience that really mattered on that day."

Our political high holy day, part I

EDITOR'S NOTE: First of two columns on President Barack Obama's inauguration. As Aretha Franklin finished singing "My Country, 'Tis of Thee," the queen of soul did what she has done for decades -- she improvised.

The result was a soaring bridge between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and a sermon 45 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial.

"Our fathers' God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, with freedom's holy light, protect us by thy might," sang Franklin, before adding words that echoed some of the final cadences the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., added to his "I Have A Dream" address.

"Let freedom ring ... From the red clay of Georgia, all the way to the Allegheny Mountains. ... Let freedom ring."

If anyone ever doubted that themes from the Civil Rights Movement have been blended into America's "civil religion," it's time for those doubts to fade.

Presidential inaugurations are the "high feast days" of the vague, but powerful, faith that binds together a nation of many races and creeds. To no one's surprise, religion played a major role in the rites for Obama, said Darrin M. Hanson, a political scientist at Xavier University of Louisiana.

"Obama has a preacher's emotional style of speaking and he uses that to bring people together. It's a skill he will need in the days ahead," said Hanson, who will be analyzing the 2009 address as part of his research into the role that presidents play in America's civil religion.

In this speech, Hanson said, Obama wanted to deliver a few sobering, "prophetic" messages as well as offer "priestly" words to encourage the million-plus people on the National Mall and the millions more watching from coast to coast and worldwide.

Thus, the new president told his listeners: "Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age."

Obama then used religious images -- aimed at left and right -- to describe bitter divisions in the body politic.

"On this day," he said, "we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things."

When scholars describe "civil religion," they discuss words and rituals that try to accomplish four major goals, argued Hanson, in an essay entitled "The High Priest of American Civil Religion: Continuity and Change."

First, American "civil religion" attempts to promote unity while accepting religious pluralism. Second, this faith must remain separate from both the state and any specific religion, he said. However, if it ever favors a particular creed, it does so in defense of fundamental human rights. Finally, this "civil religion" provides unity by appealing to shared values and beliefs, acted out in common rites that are acceptable to most believers.

In one passage, the new president managed to combine a number of "civil religion" themes, while also evoking deep emotions at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and his own personal pilgrimage.

"This is the source of our confidence -- the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny," said Obama. "This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath."

The key, said Hanson, is that Obama managed to hit a few hard topics -- from global terror to an economic recession -- while emphasizing words of hope.

"If you are trying to bring people together, you can't be too specific when you talk about the things that drive people apart," he said. "Inaugural addresses, and I've read them all, are supposed to be vague -- but inspiring. …

"In the end, it's easier to be a priestly and successful president than it is to be a prophetic and successful president. It's hard to tell people, 'We have really messed up and all of us are going to have to change.' "

NEXT: The politics of prayer, in two dramatic acts.