If pre-inauguration discussions are any indication, there’s going to be plenty of talk over the next four years about the role of religion in public life.

Yes, that conversation’s been going on for quite some time, I know. But the advent of the Obama era is widening it.  Mainline church leaders have been sort of on the margins for years.  I know — I post religion news from the Associated Press on our website six days a week, and most articles are about a.) scandals b.) homosexuality or c.) evangelicals. That’s fine, but meanwhile, mainline churches — which have millions of members even though our numbers are declining — are still places where faithful and interesting ministry happens, all the time.

We don’t get much attention in the mainstream press, but that’s all changing. Witness the selection of Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to deliver the sermon during the inaugural prayer service on January 21. She’s the first woman to be asked to do this, so it’s an honor. It’s also an indicator, I think, that Obama cares about Disciples, and Methodists, and UCCers, and Lutherans, and Presbyterians.  To me, that’s even better news.

And it’s not just the mainline church that’s finally got a listening ear in the White House. Historic African American churches are going to be heard from more, and misunderstood less [i.e Jeremiah Wright]. So are people of other faiths — Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and others.

Even atheists. Yep, that’s right – atheists. I’m not one, but I think their questions about the interplay between religion and government will be taken seriously. Atheists have the right to ask questions, and attacking atheists for asking them only makes people of faith look ignorant. Some of the battles atheist choose may seem trivial, but others are salient.  People of faith who believe religion should have a role in public life need to be able to make that case (and relying on the founding fathers alone is not going to cut it).

One way or another, things are going to get interesting.

So here’s a question to ponder. In all the discussion of who gets to pray and who doesn’t, and who’s going to pray to what deity, there’s the more fundamental question of whether or not prayer is appropriate at all. [for some, this isn’t a question, I know]. Jennifer Garza of the Sacramento Bee explored the question in an article yesterday. She also interviewed Bob Cornwall, who writes the Ponderings on a Faith Journey blog (always an interesting read) about the selection of Watkins to preach on Jan. 21.