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At Dem parley, accepting ‘Jesus’ name

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Rabbi David Saperstein offered prayers for Barack Obama and Joe Biden during his opening invocation Aug. 28, 2008 at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

Rabbi David Saperstein offered prayers for Barack Obama and Joe Biden during his opening invocation Aug. 28, 2008 at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. (Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism)

DENVER (JTA) – Barack Obama’s big night began with a prayer from a rabbi and ended with one concluding “in Jesus’ name.” Well, sort of.

A few minutes after the Democratic nominee made his acceptance speech Aug. 28 at Denver’s Invesco Field, an evangelical Christian pastor stepped to the microphone and delivered an ecumenical benediction – until he reached the very end.

“I want to interrupt this prayer for a closing instruction,” said Joel Hunter of Northwood Church in Longwood, Fla., adding that he wanted it to be a “participatory prayer.” So Hunter asked everyone to “close this prayer in the way your faith tradition” would “usually end prayers” – he concluded with the words “in Jesus’ name.”

Such an ending by itself might be expected to draw some Jewish objections. But at least one rabbi, Jack Moline, at the convention argued that the novel conclusion was a reasonable compromise to the dilemma of how to allow evangelical Christians to stay true to their traditions in public settings while not turning off those of other faiths.

In fact, said Moline, a Conservative rabbi from Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va., it was his idea.

Moline said he was approached by members of the Obama campaign’s Jewish outreach team asking whether a prayer “in Jesus’ name” would bother Jews. Having seen another Christian pastor at a funeral a few years earlier ask a religiously diverse crowd to pray in their own traditions, Moline suggested that as a possible solution.

“If you’re going to do invocations and benedictions, you can’t exclude one religious group,” he said, insisting that asking evangelical Christians to omit a mention of Jesus from their prayers would not be appropriate because it is such a huge part of how they pray.

Moline said reaction to the Hunter prayer indicates some progress, pointing out that many Jews are stunned when the Rev. Billy Graham offers a prayer in Jesus’ name at every inauguration.

After Hunter’s prayer, Moline said, “I’ve been hearing from people, ‘Was that enough?’ “

Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and the clergyman tapped by the Obama camp to deliver the invocation earlier in the evening, also praised Hunter’s “brilliant” attempt at inclusiveness.

Allowing everyone to say the prayer aloud, Saperstein said, “may change the way people pray together at public events. It was a sensitive way of dealing” with inclusiveness.

Saperstein also noted that just using “in Jesus’ name” instead of Jesus Christ or the Trinity may be more acceptable to Jews because Jews can treat Jesus as a teacher.

Echoing Moline, Saperstein said that if evangelicals are invited to deliver public prayers, “They’re going to pray in the name of Jesus.”

In his opening remarks, Saperstein said, “We pray for America, that it may ever be ‘ohr le goyim,’ a light unto the nations, a beacon of freedom, human rights and economic opportunity. The protector of this precious earth, which you have entrusted to our care, may your name be invoked only to inspire and unify our nation but never to divide it.”

Then, after specific blessings for Obama, vice presidential nominee Joe Biden and ailing U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), Saperstein concluded: “These things we ask of you, Eternal God, in the sunshine of renewed dreams, committed that the torch of hope shall pass from hand to hand, from heart to heart, until the radiance of peace and righteousness for all God’s children shines to the ends of the earth. Amen.”

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