Inauguration Religious Diversity — Sort Of

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

James Besser in Washington

In a nod to religious diversity, three prominent rabbis representing the biggest streams of Judaism wil take part in a Wednesday prayer service in Washington, along with an Islamic official and other clerics.

But as Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman points out, prayers during the actual inauguration ceremonies  – a relatively recent innovation, dating back only to 1937 – are becoming more overtly Protestant even as the nation grows more religiously pluralistic.

Public attention has been focused on megachurch preacher Rick Warren, who will give the invocation at Tuesday’s swearing in of President-elect Barack Obama.

But a National Prayer Service at the Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday will include a psalm reading by Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

“I am profoundly honored to be part of the inaugural activities at such an historic moment in our nation and to take part in this National Prayer Service whose participants represent the distinctly rich pluralistic tapestry of America’s religious traditions,” Saperstein said in a statement.

Responsive prayers will be led by Rabbi Jerome Epstein, director of the United synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, of New York’s Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox shul.

Also leading a prayer: Dr. Ingrid Mattson, President, Islamic Society of North America, a group some have accused of supporting Hamas.

Meanwhile, Beliefnet’s Steve Waldman traces the history of prayers at inauguration ceremonies.

Harry Truman, he said, included a Protestant minister, a Catholic priest and a rabbi during his inauguration ceremony.

But in 2001, he said, George W. Bush’s ceremony featured “two clergymen, both Protestants, and they both preached with enthusiastically Christian language….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.”

Obama’s swearing in will feature two official prayers – both Protestant. The invocation will be delivered by the controversial Warren, the benediction by the Rev.  Joseph Lowery, a co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a colleague of the late Martin Luther King.

“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,” Waldman writes. “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.”

Read his blog here

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.