So, who is qualified to pray for the President of the United States?

Everybody and anybody, according to the Apostle Paul writing to young follower Timothy in what author Mark D. Roberts calls “one of the most commonly disobeyed verses in the Bible.”

Obama pauses to pray at Jerusalem’s Western Wall

“I urge you,” Paul told Timothy, “first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority” (1 Timothy 2:1-2). “They were to do so even if that ruler was tyrannical," notes Roberts.

It’s not always easy to pray for those in power.

In other words, even if a Christian detests the person in power, we are supposed to pray for him or her anyway. And there’s nothing in the Bible about clergy being the only ones who can do the praying.

So, President Barack Obama was well within Bible guidelines when he broke historic precedent on the eve of his second inauguration. He selected the first layperson ever, Mrs. Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, to offer the inaugural benediction.

Myrlie Evers-Williams

In the past, that honor has been reserved for men of the cloth. No woman had ever given an inaugural prayer. In 1937, the first time that the ceremonies included an invocation – generally an opening prayer that God bless and guide the proceedings – was given by the Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, Episcopal Clergyman ZeBarney Thorne Phillips. The 1937 benediction – a closing prayer often asking God to bless and protect attendees as they return home – was given by Catholic priest John A. Ryan, a professor at the Catholic University of America. 

For Obama's second inauguration, the benediction was going to be

offered by anti-sex-trafficking activist Louis Giglio. However, Giglio was abruptly disinvited when he was deemed unworthy for the role.

The Rev. E.L.R. Elson praying at Dwight D. Eisenhower’s 1957 inauguration.

At a number of inaugurations throughout history, multiple prayers were offered. In Dwight D. Eisenhower’s January 20, 1953, ceremonies, the Catholic archbishop of Washington prayed, then a Jewish rabbi, followed by Eisenhower himself. The final benediction was offered by an Episcopal bishop.

At the January 20, 1969, inauguration of Richard Nixon, five prayers were offered: first, African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Charles Ewbank Tucker, then Los Angeles Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin, followed by His Eminence Iakovos, Greek Orthodox Archbishop for North and South America, and Southern Baptist Evangelist Billy Graham. The final benediction was offered by Catholic Archbishop Terence J. Cooke.

Archbishop Michaal Iakavos at Nixon’s inauguration

Nobody protested who was going to pray. The press didn’t seem to care. But things have certainly changed. Why?

At his January 20, 1977 inauguration, Jimmy Carter trimmed the prayers back to an invocation by Methodist Bishop William Cannon and a benediction by Catholic Archbishop J. R. Roach.

At his January 20, 1981 inaugural, Ronald Reagan called on his own pastor, Donn Moomaw of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles, to give both the invocation and the benediction.

Hollywood Presbyterian Pastor Moomaw at Reagan’s inauguration.

Billy Graham took care of both prayers at the January 20, 1989 inaugural of George H. W. Bush, then again at Bill Clinton’s January 20, 1993 inauguration. 

Each time it hardly made the news. And so, it’s a troubling sign of the times for inaugural praying to be embroiled in controversy – with special interest groups vetoing prayer-givers who have offended them and politicians scurrying to dodge being the next target, setting dangerous precedents in the process.

Billy Graham at the Reagan White House

At George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, there were two clergymen. The Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell prayed in “the name that’s above all other names, Jesus the Christ.” And the Rev. Franklin Graham urged Americans 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.”

“Why did Franklin Graham go this far?” asks Steven Waldman, former editor-in-chief of Beliefnet, writing in the Wall Street Journal. “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.”

George Bush praying with Billy Graham

Franklin admits he did it for personal reasons. “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 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.”

A Houston, Texas, prayer session for America

When he was criticized by some civil libertarians after the inaugural, "Graham wore their criticism as a badge of honor and used it to warn Christians about their marginalization, noted Waldman. 

“The response to the inaugural prayers is additional evidence of a disturbing trend in American life," wrote Graham. "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."

“Against this tide Franklin Graham had bravely stood,” wrote Waldman, “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.”

For his first inauguration, Barack Obama mostly seemed "focused on ideological rather than denominational diversity,” observed Waldman. “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."

Rick Warren offers the invocation at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

“But at the high-profile, official event — the swearing in —" noted Waldman, there would be just Rick Warren and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, both Protestants. For his participation, Warren, a California Baptist megachurch pastor, was blasted by both the left and the right. Some on the left said he was unworthy. Some on the right slammed him for participating at all. Then after the event, he was lambasted for the content of his prayer.

“Pastor Rick Warren’s invocation at President Obama’s inauguration today has ignited a flurry of critiques for using words from the Jewish, Christian and Muslim holy texts as well as including the name of Jesus – in several languages,” observed Drew Zahn for WorldNetDaily.

Islam expert Robert Spencer at JihadWatch.org, criticized Warren for including a common refrain from Islam’s Quran – “You are the compassionate and merciful one.” He also used terms common to Jewish prayer and the Spanish pronunciation of “Jesus.” Warren also drew criticism from atheists who, incredibly, thought the prayer was too religious. At least one lawsuit was filed, attempting to ban any

prayers at the ceremonies and to purge “so help me God” from the Oath of Office.

Barack Obama with Rick Warren

On the Dallas Morning News website, a poster named Alex slammed Warren, saying, “Not exactly inclusive. Invoking Jesus ‘who taught us to pray’ alienates all non-Christians.” Warren was bitterly denounced by the gay community before and after the event – because he had preached on numerous occasions that practicing same-gender sex is a sin.

In Canada’s National Post, editorial writers seemed amused by all the criticism. “In the United States, as in Canada,” they wrote, pundits always talk “a good game about diversity, pluralism and inclusiveness. The catch is that they don’t really intend to indulge these values, except in alliance with people who share their opinions. Diversity is great when it means affirmative action and speech codes. But it goes too far when it strays into friendly relations with” anybody having opposing views.

At that same Obama 2009 inauguration, the closing prayer by civil rights pioneer the Rev. Joseph Lowery also came under fire – with charges of racism.

The Rev. Joseph Lowery at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

Lowery opened his prayer with the first words of the “Negro National Anthem,” Lift Every Voice and Sing – “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears …” Lowery then implored the Almighty to help Americans make “choices on the side of love, not hate, on the side of inclusion not exclusion, tolerance not intolerance.” He borrowed from Isaiah, suggesting we “beat tanks into tractors.”

He then asked our Creator to “help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

For his second inauguration, Obama’s precedent-setting selection of the 79-year-old Mrs. Evers-Williams to give the invocation was applauded. Evers-Williams is a longtime civil rights worker and author who for decades worked tirelessly to prosecute the murderer of her civil rights pioneer husband Medgar Evers in 1963. She served as chair of the NAACP, edited The Autobiography of Medgar Evers: A Hero’s Life and Legacy Revealed Through His Writings, Letters, and Speeches, published in 2005, and wrote her own autobiography, Watch Me Fly: What I Learned on the Way to Becoming the Woman I Was Meant to Be, published in 1999. The story of her husband’s assassination was told in the film Ghosts of Mississippi with Whoopi Goldberg playing Evers-Williams.

However, a firestorm erupted when Obama announced that the benediction would be offered by Atlanta pastor and anti-slavery and sex-trafficking activist Louie Giglio.

Atlanta pastor Louis Giglio

The White House abruptly announced that Giglio would not be giving the prayer after a left-leaning website found a sermon Giglio had preached against homosexuality. Twenty years earlier, Giglio had told his congregation that practicing same-gender sex is a sinful choice and that anyone guilty of unrepentant, unforgiven sin is prevented from “entering the Kingdom of God.” For preaching that sermon, he was not welcome to pray at Obama’s inauguration. Southern Baptist commentator Albert Mohler  called it "a new chapter in America’s moral revolution."

George W. Bush at a White House prayer breakfast

“The news that Louie Giglio is no longer going to give the benediction at President Obama’s inauguration sent shock waves around the conservative Christian world,” reported Matthew Lee Anderson for CNN. “Conservative Christians are right to be concerned about what these events mean for their welcome in the public square."

“The Presidential Inaugural Committee and the White House have now declared historic, biblical Christianity to be out of bounds, casting it off the inaugural program as an embarrassment,” said Mohler. “By its newly articulated standard, any preacher who holds to the faith of

the church for the last 2,000 years is ‘persona non grata.’"

The Eisenhowers leaving church.

Mohler denounced a "new Moral McCarthyism of our sexually ‘tolerant’ age." During the 1950s McCarthy hearings, witnesses would be asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

"In the version now to be employed by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, the question will be: “Are you now or have you ever been one who believes that homosexuality is anything less than morally acceptable and worthy of celebration?”

“It is plain that classical liberalism has just told Louie Giglio that he can be accepted as ‘affirming and fair-minded’ only at the price of his theological convictions,” wrote Carlton Wynne. “In the coming years (and, of course, even now in the present), Bible-believing Christians will be more and more pressed to hide or revise their biblical convictions on a host of matters or else face being labeled 'intolerant,’ ‘backward,’ ‘bigots’ or even ‘evil.’

“The very philosophy that stands behind such a threat is both hypocritical and empty,” wrote Wynne. 

“Giglio, pastor of Atlanta’s Passion City Church, is also founder of the Passion movement that brings tens of thousands of Christian young people together to hear Giglio, along with speakers such as John Piper,” wrote Mohler. “They urge a rising generation of young Christians to make a passionate commitment to Christ. In recent years, the movement has also sought to raise awareness and activism among young Christians on the issue of sex trafficking.

“Note carefully that both the White House and the committee were ready to celebrate Giglio’s activism on sex trafficking, but all that was swept away by the Moral McCarthyism on the question of homosexuality.

“Giglio has strategically avoided any confrontation with the issue of homosexuality for at least 15 years,” noted Mohler. “The issue ‘has not been in the range of my priorities,’ he says. Given the Bible’s insistence that sexual morality is inseparable from our ‘ultimate significance as we make much of Jesus Christ,’ this must have been a difficult strategy.

Dr. Nelson Glueck at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration

“It is also a strategy that is very attractive to those who want to avoid being castigated as intolerant or homophobic. As this controversy makes abundantly clear, it is a failed strategy. Louie Giglio was cast out of the circle of the acceptable simply because a liberal watchdog group found one sermon he preached almost 20 years ago. The imbroglio surrounding Louie Giglio is not only painful, it is revealing. We now see the new Moral McCarthyism in its undisguised and unvarnished reality.”

But what about Paul's words to Timothy that all of us are to pray for our nation's leaders?

“Luke records a parable spoken by Jesus to a group of men ‘which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others’,” writes Amy Gordon on the “A Reason to Hope” website. Luke tells how two men went to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee, and the other a publican. “The publicans, in Christ’s day, were the tax collectors, traitorous Jews who colluded with the occupying Roman authorities,”

notes Gordon. “They were seen as corrupt and hated by the other Jews of their day."

They were the government bureaucrats of the day. The Pharisees were the clergy.

The Publican and the Pharisee

These clergy stood out in a prominent place, dressed in religious robes and prayed for everybody to hear: “God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican. I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.”

While the Pharisee was impressing everybody with his self-congratulating prayer, the hated government bureaucrat -- that day's equivalent of an IRS auditor -- stood in a dark corner and “would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’”

His humble prayer was the one that pleased God, Jesus told the disciples.

“Something snapped inside of me this month,” writes Gordon. “Maybe it was when a friend made a hateful comment about my worthiness. I realized that so much of what was bothering me, and what I had been learning the past few years, could be summed up by this parable of the publican’s prayer. How tired I am of philosophies that divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ that shut others out while vaunting ourselves.”

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them," cautioned Jesus. “When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words."

So, does the Bible ban public prayer? No, “public prayer is common in the Old Testament,” writes theologian David Reagan. “Solomon prayed at the dedication of the temple.” The prophet Elijah prayed publicly on Mt. Carmel ridiculing the false prophets of Baal.

The Prophet Elijah and the false prophets of Baal

The prohibition is against hypocrisy. The Lord wants humility and repentance. A Judean refugee named Ezra once prayed before “a very great congregation of men and women and children,” according to Ezra 10:1, which describes a passionate invocation.

“When Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept.”

That's the kind of public prayer the Lord wants to hear.

So, the next time you hear somebody praying for the president, listen carefully. It's clear which kind of prayer pleases God. In the past, nobody particularly listened. The press never cared what the priests, rabbis, archbishops or pastors said.

Now, they're ready to dissect every word. The prayer has become as important as the presidential address. Americans are watching and wondering about this nation's future, Obama's "change," free speech, our traditionally free exercise of religion, the new "moral McCarthyism" and whether political correctness will prevail over truth, humility and repentance.

Indeed, it will be good to listen.

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