Saturday, January 17, 2009

The History of America's Inaugural Prayers -

With a h/t to that guy @ his blog (he gets unbelievably touchy when anyone makes mention of the same piece of internet that he did over at his place. -- And this time, I actually did see it there, first), I offer The History of America's Inaugural Prayers, by Steve Waldman.

I'll post the opening paragraphs, but I urge everyone to read the whole thing:

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 America has actually become less inclusive and pluralistic over time.

From there Mr Waldman goes on to discuss the history of elected officials and religion, and traces the changes that got us from:

- no invocation of religion at Presidential swearing-in ceremonies,

- to several celebrants on the podeum, representing the major religions in America (the "religious-diversity" model, 1937 - 1985),

- to one celebrant, who took care to recognize that we were a country of many faiths, and offered words that were inclusive of as many people as possible (the "America's pastor" model, 1989, 1993),

- to the latest, "Protestant only" model, where diversity is not taken into account, and the prayers speak of Jesus as Lord of us all, without regard for those who might be personally or religiously offended by such statements (Jews, Muslims, atheists, Hindus...)

Mr Waldman believes that unlike the prior two models (or the period with no religious invocation at all), this current way of doing things offends the spirit, if not the actual words, of our Constitution, as it "giv[es] clear preference to Christianity by having only clergy who pray in Christ's name."

After some discussion of where some atheists stand on these prayers (hint: they're opposed), and more about religious expression by our earliest Presidents, Mr Waldman concludes the essay with the following:

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.

Before anyone decides that Mr Waldman is just another crazy nihilist or atheist (while these terms may be interchangeable in some circles, they in fact have different meanings), please read his bio:

Steven Waldman is editor in chief and co-founder of, and author of "Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America." There is an archive of inaugural prayers since 1937 on his Beliefnet blog.

While I would personally prefer to see Presidents go back to either the "religious diversity" or "America's pastor" models discussed in the article, I believe that ultimately, it is the President's day, and I can "overlook" the use of celebrant[s] from his own faith, and messages that reflect his own beliefs, rather than the whole country's.

Contrary to many, on both sides of the political spectrum aparently, I wouldn't want to lose the inaugural invocation &/or benediction based on what naysayers in the public have to say about a particular President-elect's choices of celebrant or prayer. Who they choose & what is said tells us something about the leaders they intend to be, of course, and I have no problem with anyone expressing their opinion of either, but those decisions should ultimately be the President's, rather than ours...

If there ever comes a time when we go back to having no religious invocation, I want it to be because the President-elect in question wanted it that way, and not because a whiney public didn't approve of his chosen celebrant(s), or the message they planned on offering.

I believe the inauguration is the President's day, more in keeping with a wedding than a government function. In both cases, we're invited to attend the ceremony, but we don't get to pick the preacher or the vows... ...though we are free to express our opinions & otherwise kibitz amongst ourselves about both.

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