Why The Inaugural Prayers Have Become Less Inclusive Over Time

Why The Inaugural Prayers Have Become Less Inclusive Over Time

By Steven Waldman

First published in The Wall Street Journal in 2009

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.
Read more at https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/stevenwaldman/2009/01/the-inaugural-prayers-have-bec.html#AKWczTtRGDV3BdDO.99