Amen, A-Woman, and a Benediction that Dishonored the Spirit of Religious Liberty

January 8, 2021

“…We ask in the name of the monotheistic god, Brahma, and god known by many names by many different faiths. Amen and a-woman.” -United Methodist Pastor Emanuel Cleaver, U.S. Congressman from Missouri’s 5th District

This is how Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, an ordained United Methodist minister, concluded his prayer inaugurating the 117th Congress on January 3, 2021.  His preposterous benediction dishonors the spirit of religious liberty.

Opening Congress with prayer is a venerable and appropriate tradition. Prayer demonstrates humility: we do not have all the answers and we seek divine guidance.  Prayer demonstrates the Judeo-Christian foundations of our country as well as America’s unique religious tolerance. From the Mayflower Compact through countless waves of immigrants bringing all the world’s religions to our shores, prayer is a manifestation of America’s highly religious, but not sectarian, identity. It is an important aspect of religious liberty, which guarantees the right to free exercise of religion, publicly and privately, without government coercion.  

It is fully appropriate for any U.S. citizen, regardless of vocation or religious affiliation, to serve in the U.S. Congress.  The U.S. Constitution prohibits any religious test for office and thus not just a Methodist, but a Methodist pastor like Emanuel Cleaver, can run for and win high office.

It is consonant with our religious liberty for a public official to ask publicly for God’s blessing for all citizens, to pray for peace, and to seek the best for our neighbors and our world.  Benjamin Franklin implored Congress to pray: 

 The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of menI firmly believe this…I therefore beg leave to move – that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business…”

Most importantly, the spirit of religious liberty assumes that such a prayer is spoken authentically from within one’s own faith tradition. Integrity demands that religious people – especially professional clergy – act and speak authentically from within their tradition.  The American Founders protected such expression for everyone, as a matter of free exercise equality guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. To violate fidelity to one’s own confession by invoking others’ gods is not an expression of religious freedom; it is doublespeak, and it discredits the spirit of religious liberty.

Congressman Cleaver’s prayer started as a majestic, stirring invocation. He quoted the Bible explicitly and called for peace, unity, and blessing on all Americans.

As for his strange benediction, the Congressman has given multiple explanations. He has claimed that “Amen and A-woman” was just a harmless pun, to celebrate the high visibility of women in the 117th Congress, including the investiture of the first female congressional chaplain. 

The new chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, Chaplain Margaret Grun Kibben, is highly educated and has had a distinguished military career, rising to serve as the Chief of U.S. Marine Corps Chaplains and later as Chief of U.S. Navy Chaplains.  Her accomplishments and appointment to this esteemed office warrant more than a pun. Moreover, as has been widely noted, “amen” traces its roots to the ancient Hebrew word meaning “so be it,” and it is unrelated to biological sex or gender.

Had Congressman Cleaver wanted to truly start the 117th Congress with an authentic tribute to his female colleagues and with an expression of good will to those of other faiths, he could have spoken from within his own faith tradition.  To do so would have demonstrated fidelity to the spirit of religious liberty.  

Pastor Cleaver’s tradition asserts that God, in His wisdom and sovereignty, created humanity in His own image, distinguishing male from female. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Genesis 1:27).  For Christians, this is also the foundation for believing in the dignity of every human being. All people have moral equality before God. Religious liberty respects and defends that moral equality.

Sadly, Congressman Cleaver’s benediction gave us an example of muddy theology that dishonors the spirit of religious liberty.

But in an earlier moment of Congressman Cleaver’s prayer, he eloquently asked for what America needs:  

Control our tribal tendencies and quicken our spirits that we may feel Thy priestly presence even in moments of heightened disagreement…Insert in our spirit a light so bright that we can see ourselves and our politics as we really are, soiled by selfishness, perverted by prejudice and inveigled by ideology…Now may the God who created the world and everything in it bless us and keep us.  May the Lord make His face to shine upon us and be gracious to us.  May the Lord lift up the light of His countenance upon us and give us peace, peace in our family, peace across this land…”