The quickest way to tick off just about everybody is to try to be evenhanded and open-minded. Nowhere is this more evident than when governmental leaders attempt to navigate a middle course between politics and religion.
President Barack Obama touched off a gale when he picked, among other clergy, both Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in California, and the Rev. Gene Robinson, an Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire, to offer petitions to the Lord during his inaugural festivities.
Liberals generally, and gay activists particularly, were incensed at Obama's choice of Warren to give the inaugural invocation. Warren had supported California's Proposition 8, which eliminated the right of gay people to marry. And some critics were terrified that Warren, an evangelical Christian, might — gasp — pray in Jesus' name.
But Obama also asked the openly gay Robinson, a theological liberal, to open the Inaugural Week festivities at the Lincoln Memorial with a prayer of his own. The next sound you heard was conservatives slashing their robes.
Sally Quinn, of the Washingtonpost.com's "On Faith" department, went on a tear. She didn't question who should offer public prayers during the inauguration.
She argued there should be no prayers. She added that Obama shouldn't swear "so help me God" in his presidential oath, and that "under God" should be erased from the Pledge of Allegiance and "In God We Trust" from U.S. coins.
Imagine you're a politician. You think you're being conciliatory by asking religious leaders of varying persuasions to participate in your big day.
Suddenly the winds howl and lightning zings past your head.
I have a bit of experience in the arena of governmental prayer. Twice, for instance, I've been invited to offer invocations at sessions of the Kentucky House of Representatives. On both occasions, as best I can recall, I was asked beforehand not to end my prayers with "in Jesus' name," the customary way Christians pray.
I obliged. Instead of appealing to Jesus by name, I offered up generic supplications in which I asked God to imbue the representatives with wisdom, honesty and selflessness. (One legislator chastised me for praying for miracles. Ha.)
My thinking went like this:
■ I didn't want to give offense unnecessarily, didn't want to be a jerk.
■ I figured God knew who I was praying to.
■ I didn't imagine my public prayers carried much weight anyway. Because I'm a follower of Jesus, I believe what he said on the matter — that prayers offered in the public square are inherently designed to appeal to the humans within earshot, not the Almighty. Apparently, God hardly listens when we ascend a podium and loudly blather on. He prefers we address him from our private prayer closets.
Don't get mad at me; that's what Jesus said. I happen to agree with him.
Nonetheless, we shouldn't eliminate prayers at political events. If nothing else, they pay appropriate homage to an indisputable fact: the majority of Americans believe in a God, and realize that, without God's help, we're probably sunk.
And while I'm not at all angered by being asked to omit "in Jesus' name," I do think it shows how hypersensitive we've become.
That is, I favor separating organized religion from secular government. But you'll never separate individuals' religious faith from their public and political actions.
You shouldn't even try.
Each politician, from a member of a city council to the president of the United States, carries into office his or her theology or absence thereof. What leaders do is always to some extent a reflection of whom, how seriously or whether they worship.
Similarly, clergy are citizens, too, with equal rights. A Muslim imam ought to feel free to pray over the state legislature or the U.S. Senate in the name of Allah. A Christian minister ought to be able to invoke Jesus.
Everyone in the audience knows this is one citizen's opinion. No one's putting a rifle to your neck and making you agree. It's still a free country. I might call on Jesus, but you can worship anybody or anything you want to, including peat moss, if you so choose.
Praise the Lord that's how it is here. My own God is the New Testament God. But my country is the country of all: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, all other religions and atheists.
I can't read President Obama's mind, but I assume this was the message he was trying to send by choosing both Warren and Robinson.
Americans would have done well to listen, not so much to the specific content of Warren's and Robinson's prayers, but to the spirit behind Obama's selections.