Tuesday, January 20, 2009

History of Inaugural Prayers

With all the fuss over who is praying at the Inauguration and how they are praying, I found Saturday's article in the Wall Street Journal: The Power of Prayer by Steven Waldman, a very interesting history of how this tradition evolved.

If you're not up to reading the very lengthy article, here is my brief summary.

Surprisingly to me, this tradition is of recent origin. While the first presidents issued "prayer proclamations" periodically that drew controversy, pray-ers were not included in their inaugural ceremonies. This tradition dates only from 1937.

Although most would agree that America was a less tolerant and diverse nation then, the roster of "prayers" was more diverse than it later became. Truman had a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi. From 1937 until 1985 (except for the Carter inauguration) inaugural prayers were offered by what Waldman dubbed "the four person prayer scrum." (Love that term!) The prayers given were all explicitly and unabashedly Christian or Jewish.

Ronald Reagan invited just his personal pastor to his first inauguration, but then returned to the four person prayer team at his second inauguration. After that, both Bush 41 and Bill Clinton only invited "America's pastor", Rev. Billy Graham. Bush 43 invited only Franklin Graham (Billy's son) to his first inaguration and then reinvited him and added Rev. KirbyJon Caldwell to the second inauguration.

Barak Obama followed these precedents by inviting only one pastor to pray at his inauguration--Rick Warren. And Rick Warren's prayer was made in the name of Jesus and he closed it with the Lord's Prayer, following the explicitly Christian model of recent history.

It's fascinating that, as Steven Waldman pointed out, the prayers at Presidential inaugurations have become less inclusive as the country grows more diverse. That's not what I would have predicted.


Songbird said...

I can't say how disappointed I was to hear Warren use The Lord's Prayer. He included you and me at the cost of excluding many, many others. Didn't we have a discussion here once before about offering prayers at civic events? There is a great difference between invoking a general Divinity and assuming we all follow Jesus, and the former is more appropriate at a civic event. (IMHO.)

Viola Larson said...

Pastor Warren actually made reference to God in the first part of his prayer that would have satisfied both a Muslim and a Jew. Compassionate and Merciful are part of the Islamic prayer and text.
He also used the three names of Jesus in their Hebrew, Islamic and Christian spelling. He was also asked to pray as a Christian pastor and I loved that he said the Lords prayer because I noticed others in the audience praying with him.

And if he had been of another faith I would have agreed that he should have prayed to the God of that faith because I believe that is what our freedom of religion in America is all about.

Quotidian Grace said...

I noticed the references to Islamic and Jewish practice in Warren's references to God.

When I've posted before about prayers in the public square, I struggled with the appropriateness of closing in the name of Christ.

I'm sure many will agree with Songbird about the inclusion of The Lord's Prayer.

However, if you look at the text of the prayer it is really universal. It doesn't close in the name of Jesus or Christ or include any theological language about Jesus Christ.

If it weren't for its title, and the fact that it is seen as a Christian prayer, I wonder if it would seem particularly "Christian"?

Ruby said...

There has been much modern mythologizing of civic prayer, which, as you point out, doesn't have the rich history its proponents sometimes claim -- And it's seldom very satisfying for the participants. Rick Warren's prayer today seemed self-conscious, and despite the invocation of Jesus in several languages, not very prayerful.

As usual, the biggest loser in a parade of governmental religiosity is genuine religious belief. My guess is that the most beautiful and heartfelt prayers today were said by those of us who were watching, each invoking our own beliefs.

Presbyterian Gal said...

Personally, I got more from the benediction. Found Warren rather forced and thin.

John Edward Harris said...

I concur with Presbyterian Gal. Warren's invocation sufficed but seemed bland. While it might have seemed balanced and evidenced an attempt to be inclusive, it was not. Nor was it spiced with biblical language, images or metaphors. Lowery's benediction drew from the rich tradition of American Hymnody and served with helpings of Biblical prophets and prophet like alliteration and exhortation.

Anonymous said...

I'm appalled that any Christian would be disappointed about hearing the Lord's Prayer said in any context or situation.

I also found Lowrey's "When black won't get back, when brown can stick around..." to be insulting to a majority of people in this country.

pjp said...

To me prayer is a self meditation. I am not sure the Almighty is interested in hearing our prayers. Prayer is a selfish act to begin with.