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The Inaugural Prayer of Confession

Steve Waldman has created an archive of inaugural prayers throughout history. In my first read through these prayers, which go back to the 1937 prayer at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inauguration, I was struck by how rarely we see a confessional form of prayer. Lots of other forms are covered: intercession (praying for others), praise (thanking God), remembrance (acknowledging God in the past), dedication (promising to follow God), and so on. 

But I count only a handful of confessional prayers–“God, forgive us for”–and acknowledgement that we, as a nation, have somehow led ourselves astray and need to be turned around. 
This isn’t surprising, of course; it’s striking that it happens at all. But it does. Kirbyjon Caldwell is the most recent confessional pray-er at inaugurations. In 2005, he prayed:

God, forgive us for becoming so ensnarled in petty partisan politics that we miss Your glory and block our purpose. Deliver us from the evil one, from evil itself and from the mere appearance of evil.


Give us clean hearts, so that we might have clean agendas, clean priorities and programs and even clean financial statements. [Ed: Ahem, and amen.]

Franklin Graham made a confession of sorts at Bush’s 2001 inaugural, though not as starkly as you might expect from Graham:

 We have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown, but we have forgotten God. It behooves us then to humble ourselves before the offended powers, to confess our national sins and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.


His father, Billy Graham, is (not surprisingly) the most consistently confessional in his many inaugural prayers. Even he doesn’t make a confession each time–there was no repentance in his 1997 prayer for Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. But his 1993 prayer threw the confessional gauntlet down pretty hard:

We’ve sinned against you. We’ve sown to the wind and are reaping the whirlwind of crime, drug abuse, racism, immorality, and social injustice. We need to repent of our sins and turn by faith to you.


What do you think of these? How do you think they are heard by the nation, if at all? Is confession appropriate at an inaugural prayer? I know many people think any sort of sectarian prayer has no place at a public ceremony. But for those of you who believe it’s appropriate for presidents to request a prayer at their inauguration, do you think the minister ought to lead us in reflecting in our wrongs and asking for national redemption? 

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posted January 14, 2009 at 6:09 pm

Absolutely, it is appropriate. A president should feel free to invite whatever religious figure he wishes to lead in prayer at his inauguration, and that spiritual leader should feel free to express sorrow and repentence on behalf of the nation for the collective sins of the nation. Who would disagree that our nation should repent of its failures such as crime, drug abuse, racism, immorality, and social injustice? There is a saying that “confession is good for the soul.” It is also good for the collective soul of a nation. The one praying should then invoke the power and guidance of God for the President who will seek to lead us to reduce these wrongs in our society.

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BD Ballard

posted January 26, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Most significant is the awareness that 1) God doesn’t hear every prayer (Proverbs 28:9) and 2) the purpose of prayer is to glorify and seek God’s will in all things, not pander to the crowd nor incite public cheering or jeering. Clearly, these prayers were planned with the approval of humankind in mind, not God’s will, glory, nor attention. Reverence does not invoke laughter, booing, or cheering; those indicators are man made and ‘man focused’.
We are now in the death throes of a societal collapse and more and more the patterns of history and truths from God’s own word amplify the need to stop, repent, and return to our Creator – God.
Take time to reflect on these passages before it’s too late:
if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (II Chronicles 7:14) and Jesus’ admonition –
…unless you repent you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:3, 5)
Pray God it’s not too late for us all…

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