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Inaugural benediction flap prompts question: 'Who can pray for the nation?'

Published: Friday, Jan. 11 2013 5:45 p.m. MST

So, who can pray for the nation?

That's the question some are trying to answer after a megachurch pastor declined an invitation to pray at the presidential inauguration because of an anti-gay marriage sermon he gave 15 years ago.

In a statement issued Thursday, Rev. Louis Giglio said his prayer would be "dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda the focal point of the inauguration."

Giglio was referring to pro-gay marriage activists who dug up the video of Giglio preaching in the mid-1990s against the homosexual lifestyle and gay marriage in particular. Among the excerpts from Giglio's sermon highlighted on the website Think Progress:

"We must lovingly but firmly respond to the aggressive agenda of not all, but of many in the homosexual community. … Underneath this issue is a very powerful and aggressive moment. That movement is not a benevolent movement. It is a movement to seize by any means necessary the feeling and the mood of the day, to the point where the homosexual lifestyle becomes accepted as a norm in our society and is given full standing as any other lifestyle, as it relates to family."

Given that Giglio is an evangelical Christian, his message that homosexuality is a sin that can be forgiven and overcome through Jesus Christ should come as no surprise. And it raises the question for Ed Stetzer, head of the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated Lifeway Research, of whether like-minded ministers are now banished from the public square:

"Are people of faith no longer welcome as they continue to hold the beliefs they have held since their foundation? Must they jettison their sacred texts and adopt new views to be accepted as part of society? If they do not, will they be marginalized and demonized even as they serve the poor, care for the orphan, or speak against injustice?

"Or, instead, can we recognize that a substantial minority in our culture hold views they see as rooted in their scriptures and part of their faith, even though those views may not always be popularly accepted? Yes, the First Amendment protects these views. But we also have to decide if the people who hold such views can be protected by the so-called tolerant culture as they seek not just to hold those beliefs in secret, but also dare to utter them in public — even on a sermon tape 15 years ago."

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, asked if "all orthodox clergy (are) now to be banished from civic life if they openly affirm their faith’s teachings about marriage and sexual ethics?

“Are only clergy from declining liberal denominations now acceptable according to hyper political correctness? Will the same standard also apply to Muslims and members of other faiths who don’t subscribe to the views of Western secular elites?”

Meanwhile, other bloggers are asking another question: If utterances on gay marriage can make or break participation in the inauguration, why did they pick Giglio in the first place?

Here's what the White House had to say:

“We were not aware of Pastor Giglio’s past comments at the time of his selection and they don’t reflect our desire to celebrate the strength and diversity of our country at this inaugural. Pastor Giglio was asked to deliver the benediction in large part for his leadership in combating human trafficking around the world. As we now work to select someone to deliver the benediction, we will ensure their beliefs reflect this administration’s vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans.“

In his first inauguration, Obama upset gay rights activists for choosing Rick Warren, another megachurch pastor with strong anti-gay marriage views. But Obama stuck with Warren, who delivered a noncontroversial invocation.

But public sentiment and politics over same-sex marriage have changed in the past four years.

Obama was an opponent of gay marriage in 2008, noted the The Washington Post, which cited its own poll showing that between 2006 and 2012, the percentage of all Americans who support same-sex marriage has climbed from 36 to 53.

"The quick pullback of Giglio, to some, signaled a tipping point," the Post reported. “The whole subtext behind this is the dramatic ways in which the whole conversation and public sentiment have changed over the last decade on this very issue,” said Randall Balmer, a historian of American religion at Dartmouth College."

Ross Murray, director of religion, faith and values for the gay activists group GLADD, blogged on Huffington Post that there are plenty of faith leaders without an anti-gay bias, and he offered a long list for the administration to consider.

But Pastor Joel Hunter, a spiritual adviser to Obama and a Florida megachurch leader, told Religion News Service that Giglio was a good choice for the inaugural benediction and blamed the media for whipping up the controversy.

“Some of us are trying to follow scripture, but in no way want to discriminate against or demean someone with a different sexual orientation,” he said. “What gets reported, though, is only when we’re trying to articulate what scripture says.”

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