Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman


Why The Inaugural Prayers Have Become Less Inclusive Over Time

posted by swaldman

truman inauguration 1949.jpg
In 1949, the year of Harry S. Truman’s inauguration ceremony, America was a much less tolerant and diverse place. It would be another decade before Americans would be comfortable electing a Catholic president. Jews were still excluded from the upper echelons of government and business. The levers of power were held by Protestants, who made up the vast majority of the population.
But there on the podium with Harry Truman, to deliver prayers, were a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest and a rabbi.
Flash forward to 2001. America is a much more diverse nation. Protestants make up barely half the population. We’ve had a Catholic president and numerous Catholic Supreme Court justices. Jewish politicians and businessmen have risen to the highest levels of government and finance, and increasingly Islam is being treated as a mainstream American religion.
Yet at that inauguration, of George W. Bush, there were two clergymen, both Protestants, and they both preached with enthusiastically Christian language. Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell prayed in “the name that’s above all other names, Jesus the Christ.” And Rev. Franklin Graham asked the American people to “acknowledge You alone as our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer. We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.”
In fact, if one looks at the roster of clergy and the prayers they gave over the past 70 years, it appears that American inaugurations have actually become less inclusive and pluralistic over time.
Including the two prayers at Barack Obama’s inaugural, 12 prayers will have been delivered at inaugurations since 1989. All of them will have been delivered by Protestants. By contrast, in the previous 48 years, fewer than half of the prayers were offered by Protestants. Every president prior to George H.W. Bush had a Catholic and more than half also had a Jewish or Greek Orthodox clergyman.
The country has gone through, in effect, three phases.


In the first, presidents used a religious-diversity model. From 1937, when the first inaugural prayer was offered, until 1985, the presidents (with one exception in 1981) had clergy of different faiths or denominations up on the podium.
During these years, the Christian prayers were not watered down in any way. They often prayed in the name of Jesus Christ. But because there was a rabbi on the platform, no one could be accused of giving a government imprimatur to one particular religion. At Truman’s inaugural, Rev. Edward Hughes Pruden ended his prayer, “Bestow upon us, our Father, the happiness which is reserved for that nation whose God is the Lord, through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer, we pray, amen.”
It easily fit the spirit of the Constitution because he was followed by Rabbi Samuel Thurman of the United Hebrew Temple of St. Louis. “O Lord, make us worthy of all Thy blessings, to the end that both leader and people may continue to find favor in Thine eyes, and so live and serve that Thy glory,” Rabbi Thurman intoned.
Over time, the president reduced the number of clergy on the podium In 1977, Jimmy Carter enlisted two rather than four clergy, prompting protests from Jewish and Greek Orthodox groups. Ronald Reagan used just his personal pastor in 1981, though he returned to the four-person prayer scrum in 1985.
Then in 1989 and 1993 we tried what might be called the “America’s pastor” model. One man, the Rev. Billy Graham, offered both the invocation and benediction. He pulled it off by using broadly inclusive language. In 1989 he referred just to “God” and in 1993 he declared: “I pray this in the name of the one that’s called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Everlasting Father and the Prince of Peace.” Note, too, that he used the word “I” rather than “we,” which would have assumed all in the audience were Christian.
Mr. Graham, who served as a spiritual adviser for several presidents, at that point seemed to understand that if one doesn’t have a diversity of voices, then the remaining clergy have to, through careful construction of their own prayer, speak for all Americans.
Ironically, the shift to this model may have been driven in part by America’s increasing diversity. As more and more faiths–including non-Christian religions–grew, it may have seemed impractical to have a representative cast of clergy. The podium could buckle under the weight of the holy men and women if all substantial faiths were given voice. A single, acceptable preacher could serve all purposes, and, luckily, Mr. Graham had attained such broad acceptance that he could play that unusual role.
There were likely political factors, too. George H.W. Bush was viewed suspiciously by conservative evangelical Christians, then a growing political force. By choosing Mr. Graham, Bush could burnish his Christian credentials. Bill Clinton had his own reasons for keeping Mr. Graham as the star of the spiritual show in 1993. The new president was viewed by religious Americans as a liberal of dubious morality. By embracing Mr. Graham, he could highlight his Bible belt roots and faith.
Next came the Protestant-only model. In 1997, Mr. Graham was the only pastor at Bill Clinton’s second inaugural, but this time he made it a fully Christian prayer, ending it “we pray in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
His son, Franklin Graham, then took it a step further in 2001, urging Americans from the balcony of the U.S. Capitol to acknowledge Christ “alone” as their savior. Why did Franklin Graham go this far? To some degree he and Mr. Caldwell probably just prayed the way they normally pray without fully realizing their special roles as the only clergy on the stage that day.
But the politics of evangelicalism had changed, too. By 2001 conservative evangelicals had become a powerful force in American politics, instrumental to electing George W. Bush to the presidency. Part of the evangelical identity, increasingly, was a pugnacious sense that they were being persecuted and should not be cowed into suppressing their faith. “I knew stating that there is no other Name by which an individual can be saved grate on some ears and prick some hearts,” Franklin Graham wrote about his inaugural prayer in his book, “The Name.” “However, as a minister of the gospel, I was not there to stroke the egos of men. My role was to acknowledge the all powerful One and please Him….I want to please my Father in heaven no matter the cost.” The country’s growing religious diversity left evangelical Protestants feeling more defensive and inclined to strut their theological stuff.
When he was criticized by some civil libertarians after the inaugural, Mr. Graham wore their criticism as a badge of honor and used it to warn Christians about their marginalization. “The response to the inaugural prayers is additional evidence of a disturbing trend in American life: Christians who use the name of Jesus and insist that He is ‘the one and only way to God’ are increasingly viewed by many in the liberal media as narrow-minded religious bigots who represent a threat to the rest of society,” he said in his book. Against this tide Franklin Graham had bravely stood, achieving at least one small victory. “The media attention span is short, but at least for a few days in early 2001, the Name Jesus was heard in public discourse as something other than a curse word.”
Both the religious-diversity and America’s-pastor models probably fit the spirit of the Constitution and the style of the founders. But the third model, the Protestant-only model, doesn’t follow those rules, giving clear preference to Christianity by having only clergy who pray in Christ’s name.
Barack Obama mostly seems focused on ideological rather than denominational diversity. He chose Rick Warren, who opposes gay marriage, and then added Gene Robinson, the gay Episcopal bishop from New Hampshire, to pray at a morning service. He’s also reportedly going to have a full range of faiths–including Muslims and Jews–at the prayer service the next day. But at the high-profile, official event–the swearing in–there will be just Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery, both Protestants.
Michael Newdow, the atheist activist known for his lawsuit to strip “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance in 2004, filed a lawsuit in U.S. district court on Dec. 30 to get the prayers dropped from the inaugural ceremony, and also to block the president from including “so help me God” in his oath.
Mr. Newdow and the other atheist plaintiffs argue that, far from unifying the nation, the acknowledgement of God (not to mention the articulation of Christian theology) “do not solemnize those occasions at all” if you’re an atheist. “On the contrary, they ridicule public occasions, making a mockery of the wonders of nature and of human achievement….Specifically, the ‘real meaning’ is that Atheists are ‘so inferior and so degraded’ that their religious views warrant no respect….Under the Establishment Clause, Plaintiffs have a right to view their government in action without being forced to confront official endorsements of religious dogma with which they disagree.”
However, the courts have long accepted that having religion at public ceremonies is appropriate–though Mr. Newdow’s argument has been strengthened by the actions of Messrs. Graham and Caldwell.
If asked about inaugural prayers, the founding fathers probably would have disagreed with each other. We can surmise this because of their disagreement over presidential “prayer proclamations.” In the early years of the country, Congress repeatedly asked the president to issue official prayer proclamations, especially to give thanks. In 1789, George Washington published a deeply religious–albeit not overtly Christian–prayer declaring, “We may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions.”
John Adams did so as well, and made it more explicitly Christian. In a Thanksgiving proclamation issued March 23, 1798, Adams asked for “His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation.”
Adams was attacked for inserting religion too much into the public sphere and later concluded that his prayer proclamation had “allarmed [sic] and alienated” so many people that it led to his defeat in the election 1800.
James Madison disliked Washington’s and Adams’s prayer proclamations. Madison’s primary argument was not that mixing of church and state was bad for government or religious minorities or atheists. It was that it was bad for religion. Adams’s prayers, Madison wrote, brought “scandal [to] religion as well as the increase of party animosities.”
He also believed presidents leading the nation in prayer violated the spirit of the Constitution because they “they seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion.” When Americans began urging him to issue his own prayer proclamations after he became President, he said he feared that the citizens “have lost sight of the quality of all religious sects in the eye of the Constitution.”
When Madison did eventually cave in and issue a prayer proclamation during wartime, he offered a unique twist. Rather than calling the nation to prayer, he designated particular days on which different religions could devise prayers of their own, if they wished, “according to their own faith and forms.”
These prayers were specifically coming from the president, so in one sense that’s a greater infringement on the First Amendment than having a clergyman offer a prayer in the president’s presence. But the prayers Madison criticized were far less overtly sectarian than the ones offered at recent inaugurations.
Finding the right balance was no easier for Madison than it has been for modern presidents. As Messrs. Warren and Lowery take the inaugural stage next week, they’ll be trying to achieve two different missions. They are Christian ministers and need to stay true to their faith. But they are the only clergy on the podium and therefore must represent all Americans. If they can’t restore the proper balance that existed before 2001, then their prayers will–and should–increase the drumbeat to get rid of inaugural prayers entirely.
Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Weekend edition.



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Comments read comments(14)
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Charles Cosimano

posted January 16, 2009 at 9:30 pm


It is almost forgotten now, but George Bush was roundly ridiculed after 9/11 for running around to prayer meetings when he was supposed to be dropping bombs on somebody–anybody. There was a tee shirt that had his picture and said, “Stop him from praying and persuade him to shoot!”
Personally, I would like to hear a simple prayer at the Inaugural that would go, “Oh Lord, stop the mouths of these babbling politicians, whose hot air doth warm the earth more than all the coal mines of history put together, and get them to fix this mess we find ourselves in.”



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Tom

posted January 16, 2009 at 10:54 pm


“…and get them to fix this mess we find ourselves in.”
Sounds like an intercessory prayer from St. Jude (patron saint of lost causes) would be rather appropriate for this particular request. Oops, no Catholic priest. Oh well.



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ScienceLady

posted January 17, 2009 at 8:37 am


As an agnostic, I prefer a religious prayer not be included as part of the inaugeral ceremony. I’m for separation of religion and government. Get God off the money and out of the pledge…and get the pledge out of the schools. It’s a form of indoctorination – like praying to a country.



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pagansister

posted January 17, 2009 at 4:45 pm


ScienceLady, you’ve got the right idea!



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Gerard Nadal

posted January 17, 2009 at 4:55 pm


If there is any ridicule of public occasions, it does not come from those who pray, as Mr. Newdow suggests. The ridicule comes from the atheists and agnostics who use these occasions to advance themselves and their agenda by heckling people of faith from the cheap seats.
As for the very act of praying being a mockery of nature, it is difficult for me, a molecular microbiologist to imagine a universe of this magnitude and complexity that did not have as its origin an intelligent source of first principles. Atheists laugh at the notion of a God who always existed, but are at pains to explain the First Law of Thermodynamics which states that energy can neither be created, nor destroyed. Energy, is therefore eternal. This is held as definitive by scientists. There is no debate in our community that energy has always existed.
As for the very act of prayer constituting a mockery of human achievement, the Catholic Church built Western Civilization. It gave us the university system that we know today. All of our Ivy League universities began as protestant divinity schools. It is the ignorance and arrogance of the atheists that is an affront to intelligent people of faith who, parenthetically, make up the overwhelming majority of Americans.
Mr. Newdow would be cute, like an eccentric uncle, if the agenda lurking behind his atheism were not so dangerous.



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pagansister

posted January 17, 2009 at 7:43 pm


….”it is the ignorance and the arrogance of the atheists that is an affront to intelligent people of faith….” Gerard Nadal
How is it that atheists are ignorant and arrogant but people of faith are intelligent? There are many highly intelligent people of faith and those of NO faith, some being atheists and some agnostic. That statement holds no water. There is room for all opinions as to whether there is a divne creator or not.
I do not “heckle” those of faith…I have 2 very devote sisters & their families who are great believers….and have respect for all those who “believe”. I just don’t happen to think there is anyone up in the universe who is watching us and needs “worshiping and praying to”. However, I don’t feel there is a need to pray at public functions, have “In God We Trust” on our money (and who’s god might that be???) or find it necessary to have had the words “one nation under god” stuck into our pledge in the 1950’s. I just leave that out when I do the pledge…I’m old enough to remember it minus the addition. All those in this country don’t need it.
The Catholic church built Western Civilization? Should I be excited about that? I spent 10 years teaching in a Catholic school, 5 year olds, but still wasn’t convinced of a divine being. As to the RCC’s contributions? Yes, they’ve done good and they have also contributed to a lot of misery.



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Gerard Nadal

posted January 18, 2009 at 12:58 am


Pagansister,
Anyone who has taught 5 year olds in a Catholic school for 10 years deserves a medal. In response to your objections to my post, no you need not be excited that the Catholic Church built Western Civilization, nor about the great contributions of the Protestant universities. However, when one truly takes in the scope of what these people motivated by love of God have done in His name, I fail to see where atheists have a problem with us recognizing the Source and Summit of our strength and inspiration. Especially when you reap the fruits of that civilization.
I specifically referred to Mr. Newdow and his activist ilk as the hecklers. Not you, or any other person posting here.
As far as “one nation under God.” Stuck into the Pledge of Allegiance in the 50’s, that was more than a Cold War rhetorical flourish. In a 2002 opinion piece, the New York Times wrote, “It was a petty attempt to link patriotism with religious piety, to distinguish us from the godless Soviets.”
The Times got it half right. While it was meant to distinguish us from the godless Soviets, it was no petty matter. The issue comes down to a fundamental anthropological understanding of who we are. Our morality gives rise to our ethics and our ethics give rise to our laws. Judeo-Christian anthropology and morality have had great positive consequence.
The Judeo-Christian understanding posits that humans are made in God’s image and likeness. While we have not always lived up to this understanding in our treatment of one another, I remember a civil rights movement, rooted in that Christian anthropology. Our Bill of Rights is firmly rooted in this understanding of the human person.
I have also taught many college students who grew up behind the iron curtain in squalor and fear of a government with a brutally repressive secret police, Siberian gulags, and a living memory of the Stalinist purges that murdered people in the tens of millions. To a person, they wouldn’t trade their present experience for a return to the past.
Marx, Lenin and Stalin understood all too well that Judeo-Christian anthropology and morality stood in the way of their plans.
Consequently, we do well to scorn atheism. We have several twentieth century examples of where it leads nations. None good.
While we pray this Tuesday to a God the atheists don’t believe exists, imploring His blessings on our new President and our nation, maybe the nonbelievers could maintain a bemused, if not respectful silence.



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Barry Lynn

posted January 18, 2009 at 8:05 am


You know that my bottom line is that prayers at the official inaugural “swearing in” are a terrible idea. I think your unique analysis here, though, is very helpful in explaining how we’ve gotten to the particular form of “terrible” we’ve seen in recent years–and will see on Tuesday. Although I have no inside knowledge about this, I would not be surprised if there was a last minute “addition” of a rabbi that morning.



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non-metaphysical stephen

posted January 18, 2009 at 11:46 am


> “I’m for separation of religion and government.”
What makes you think government isn’t already a form of religion?
You can’t remove religion from any part of human experience. It isn’t a “thing” that can be excised, but rather a form of interaction with the world. We give all sorts of things religious value, even when we don’t use the terms “god” or “divinity” or other more clearly religious code words.
In many parts of the world today (including, I believe, parts of the conservative American Christian church), government has replaced the temple/church as the main focus of religion. For many people, science has become religious.
Just because we take God of our money and out of our pledge doesn’t mean we’ve removed religion from government. In fact, it may only make government more of a religion than it already is. After all, if there’s nothing above the government, then government becomes a sort of god in itself….



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Albert the Abstainer

posted January 18, 2009 at 2:34 pm


Okay, time to inject a little humour, albeit with a grain of seriousness.
At moments of extreme ecstacy, it is a most common and natural form of verbal expression to say, “Oh God!”. The sexual example is the most obvious and familiar one. Imagine, “OH _____, OH _____!!!”. I know that this is silly on one level, but there does seem to be a very natural inclination to verbalize moments of highest ecstacy with “Oh God!” I would be willing to bet, that many an atheist does it, even though they have no belief in God. This is also true in moments of imminent disaster, (e.g. “Oh my God” with the appropriate intonations of awe and dread.) This, of course, in no way proves God, but it does show that down in the deep recesses of the unconscious the archetype of God is present and expresses the stunned slack-jawed moment within the verbal frame of the word “God”.
Again, this is not proof of objective God or some particular anthropomorphic God, but of the simple fact that the deepest, most powerful and primal states almost universally result in some expression involving Deity.



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pagansister

posted January 18, 2009 at 9:59 pm


Gerard Nadal:
No medal needed for the teaching of the 5 year olds..they’re great! Was the last 10 years of my teaching life..am retired. However, thanks for the thought. :o) I most certainly loved the kids..
I admire anyone who can teach anyone over the age of 12! You mentioned that you had taught collge students.
I was small when “one nation under God” was put into the pledge, so I really never knew why…and obviously never speculated. Thanks for the info.
Do think I can understand why your former students wouldn’t want to return to the “ungodly” world of the former USSR, but I don’t think this country would be worse off without constantly being reminded that there might be a God by using it on money and in the pledge (for whatever reason it was put there). Would anyone miss a “prayer” at the beginning of public functions? I don’t think so. I tend to disagree that if an atheist were elected to office that this country would go down the tubes. After all, look what has happened in this country with that soon-to- be- former president, “W” who claims to be a “born again” Christian! Atheists aren’t “bad people” they just don’t find any reason to believe in a divine being or a creator.
As I mentioned above, my sisters are devout Christians, the 3 of us were raised in a Christian home, attending church etc. However I always questioned and at 17 or 18 decided it wasn’t for me. My husband and I raised our 2 children in a UU church. He was born and raised in the UU church…and it all made sense to me (still does).
The reason I won’t mind the praying Tuesday is because President-Elect Obama wants them. I proudly voted for him, and do wish him the best as he tries to get this country out of the mess we are in…and he will…but not immediately. All of the “fixing” willtake time, and I hope that folks realize it. He has already mentioned it several times.



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Gerard Nadal

posted January 19, 2009 at 8:22 am


Pagansister,
I do, sincerely, understand where public prayer and references to trust in God on currency would be an irritant to atheists. I can also understand where people link the religious faith of an unpopular president to his policies, souring people on those beliefs.
However, I do see danger in driving religious expression from public life. Public prayer and acknowledgement of God stand as a bulwark against the corrosive effects of secularism on individual rights. Again, those rights arising from Judeo-Christian anthropology and morality.
I wish I could share your optimism over electing atheistic leaders. Twentieth century history, however, seems to show fascism and communism as the endpoints for such unrestrained secularism. Despite the recriminations against people of faith, the deaths directly attributable to communists and fascists in the twentieth century number in the hundreds of millions. My money’s on God.
Though I did not vote for President Obama, I do wish him well, as well as you, and hope you enjoy the inaugural festivities this week. All the Best!!



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pagansister

posted January 19, 2009 at 8:13 pm


Gerard Nadal:
I most certainly will enjoy watching the official entry of a new president tomorrow.
The Best to you also. I’ve enjoyed your posts.



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non-metaphysical stephen

posted January 20, 2009 at 1:17 am


I’m a Christian who doesn’t say the Pledge *because* I’m a Christian. I can’t pledge allegiance to the USA because I pledge allegiance only to the Kingdom of God. I’ll try to make the USA a better place, but I don’t for one second believe we can serve God AND country.
I think too many people (including Christians) have already turned this country, the Constitution, democracy and capitalism into idols. Too often, the Christ we worship is an American Christ, not the Living Christ.



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