2016-06-30
Though I was less than enthusiastic about the outcome of the presidential election, I couldn't help being swept up by the excitement of the recent inaugural ceremony, especially because it was the first changing of the guard that either of my children had ever witnessed. I assembled Brandon, 8, and Sara, 6, in front of the television so that they could watch history in the making, and proceeded to identify for them the cast of characters that marched across the screen: "Look, there's President Clinton, and there's Bush. That's Bush's mother and father, and there's Senator Lieberman..."

As we watched the ceremony take shape, I felt that here, finally, was a unifying moment after a divisive campaign--all the eyes in the nation were turned in the same direction, sharing in the patriotic pomp and circumstance surrounding the transition from one president to another. When Franklin Graham began to recite the invocation, I was a bit discomfited by the fervency of his prayer--by the fact that it focused as much on the "majesty" and "splendor" of God as it did on the state of the nation and the future of its people. I tried not to read too much into it, assuming that the prayer was just another piece of a ceremony deeply rooted in history. But when Graham came to the closing of his prayer, my unease turned to outrage. "We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the son, The Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen," he said. Brandon turned to me and asked, "Aren't any of those people Jewish?"

Presidents have been kissing the bible and saying "So help me God" ever since George Washington set that precedent when taking office in 1789. But as a Jew, I felt completely alienated from the inaugural ceremony as soon as Graham invoked the Holy Trinity. What happened to the separation of church and state, I wondered. How could such an explicitly Christian prayer be included in a national ritual like the inauguration--in a political ceremony in which the country's citizens, no matter what their faith, come together to issue in a new chapter in American history? What about all those United States citizens who don't pray to Jesus Christ, who don't celebrate a Holy Spirit? I wasn't thinking only of the Jews--what about the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Unitarians? Isn't Bush going to be representing them, too?

On the day before the inauguration, Graham promised that his inaugural prayer would be "for unity." But even my eight-year-old son felt excluded by Graham's invocation. Despite all Bush's rhetoric about unifying a nation divided, he left out large segments of the country's population by allowing Graham to recite that particular prayer. I assured both Brandon and Sara that if Lieberman had been up there, the prayer would have been different. Perhaps there may even have been a rabbi standing alongside the reverend.

I was somewhat relieved to hear that clergy from different faiths joined Graham in offering prayers at the Washington Cathedral service that Bush attended the morning following the inauguration. Still, that didn't assuage my anger over Bush's lack of sensitivity at the inaugural ceremony, when most of the nation (and many of its children) were listening to what he--and Graham--had to say.

Ever since my kids were young, I have made a sincere effort to ensure that they don't feel left out because of their heritage.

Growing up Jewish in New York, I never felt like part of a minority. But having since lived in Virginia, and now in New England, I realize I led a somewhat sheltered childhood. As soon as my kids were old enough to notice that ours was one of the few houses in our community not bedecked in Christmas lights throughout the month of December, I started visiting their preschool and kindergarten classrooms armed with dreidel-shaped cookies and Hanukkah stories to ensure that they and their classmates received a balanced perspective--and that my children felt included.

Fortunately, schools are increasingly sensitive about being inclusive: Thanks to a more well-rounded curriculum, my kids now know about Kwanzaa and Ramadan too. And it's not just schools: The publishing and entertainment industries, the news media, and other businesses are all demonstrating a heightened sensitivity to the varied backgrounds of those they cater to. Certainly, government officials, who are supposed to represent this increasingly diverse population, should not lose sight of the fact that we are a pluralistic society. Which is perhaps why I find Bush's lack of sensitivity so surprising and worrisome.

As we watched the official beginning of Bush's presidency, I tried to get my children excited about the fact that they were witnessing "history"--but as soon as Reverend Graham started referring to Jesus as "our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer" I regretted having captured their attention. It was clear to my kids (and to me) that the "our" Graham was referring to did not include us. I only hope that this inauspicious beginning to Bush's reign is not an indication of things to come--that all Bush's talk about bringing the country together is not mere rhetoric. I have watched with trepidation as, even in the weeks since the inauguration, Bush has continued to blur the line between religion and politics. And I wonder if my efforts to make my children feel included will not be negated by the man elected to represent all of us. I want my children to feel that their president represents them, too.