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Perils and politics of inaugural prayers

Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center

Prayers delivered at presidential inaugurations are rarely quoted and quickly forgotten (at least in the earthly realm).

But in today's deeply divided America, who prays the prayers - and who doesn't - is fast becoming a religio-political weathervane pointing in the direction cultural winds are blowing.

President Obama's choice of the first lay person to give the inaugural invocation might have caused at least a minor stir in other years. But because Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights martyr Medgar Evers, was the one selected to pray - and the ceremony fell on Martin Luther King Day - the departure from clergy-led prayers provoked little comment or debate.

More controversial, however, was the last-minute withdrawal of Pastor Louie Giglio, the evangelical minister from Atlanta originally invited to offer the benediction.

Giglio's participation in the inauguration became a political hot potato after a liberal blog publicized a sermon he gave some 17 years ago condemning homosexuality as a sin and offering harsh words about the "aggressive agenda" of gay activists.

Rather than provoke a fight, Giglio withdrew his acceptance of the invitation to pray.

Four years ago, Obama's team stuck by the decision to have evangelical pastor Rick Warren give the benediction, despite criticism from progressives of Warren's religious views opposing homosexuality. This time around, however, the Presidential Inaugural Committee was quick to back away from Giglio. A committee spokesperson promised to replace Giglio with someone whose "beliefs reflect this administration's vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans."

Indeed, Giglio's replacement, the Rev. Luis Leon, gave a benediction that invoked God's blessings on "gay and straight" - echoing the support for GLBT equality pervading the entire ceremony.

Not surprisingly, many conservative Christian leaders and bloggers expressed outrage at the "withdrawal" of Pastor Giglio.

"This is another example of intolerance from the Obama administration to those who hold to biblical views on sexuality," said Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. "Are the scores of millions of Americans who affirm these teachings no longer welcome at the inauguration of our president?"

Ironically, many of the same religious conservatives who are decrying what they see as Obama's litmus test for who prays at the inauguration themselves apply litmus tests in other venues. For years now, conservative Christian organizers of National Day of Prayer events (including Perkins) have excluded all but those who accept their view of Scripture from leading the prayers.

The Giglio-inspired debate over inaugural prayers is yet another reminder of the perils of prayer on state occasions.

Truth be told, such prayers are almost by definition political in nature. The 2013 invocation and benediction, like most past inaugural prayers, sent clear social and political signals directed less to God and more to the listening public.

State prayers - like all manifestations of government-sponsored religion - have from time immemorial compromised authentic faith by serving the interests of the state. This, by the way, is why Thomas Jefferson wisely refused to issue presidential proclamations calling for national days of prayer and thanksgiving.

Moreover, in a pluralistic democracy no one can pray for everyone. Not all Americans can join with Myrlie Evers-Williams and say "in Jesus' name we pray." Even the most universal "to-whom-it-may-concern" prayers leave out the millions of Americans who don't pray at all.

Although it's unlikely to happen, it would be healthier for religion - and for the country - if prayers during inauguration week were left to places of worship, allowing every American to pray (or not) as conscience dictates.

For those who would mourn the loss of tradition, it's worth recalling that the practice of inviting clergy to lead prayers at the swearing-in is a relatively recent innovation, dating to President Franklin Roosevelt's second inauguration in 1937.

As long as political leaders persist in mixing prayer and politics, we'll just have to live with the fact that those who win elections get to determine what God hears from the Capitol steps every four years.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

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