President Donald Trump has already begun to set records from the first day he took office.
His inaugural ceremony had the largest number of clergy (six) to offer prayers at a presidential inauguration.
The history of prayers at inaugurations began in 1933 with Franklin D. Roosevelt. The truth may be that we do not remember what they said, let alone what the presidents said in their inaugural addresses. But the clergy’s presence demonstrates the importance of religion in national public events. The diversity of clergy from Catholic and Episcopal priests to Presbyterian ministers of all denominations and rabbis represent an acknowledgment of our nation’s pluralistic religious make-up.
History provides us with some fascinating facts about the religious aspects of inaugurations. President Trump, for example, took the oath of office using two bibles, including the revered Lincoln Bible, and one which his mother gave him long ago. President Barack Obama also took the oath of office on the Lincoln Bible and on a Bible belonging to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Though we are supposed to separate church and state, the idea of praying for the president is now embedded in our nation’s inauguration ceremony. But should we be praying for the president? Is that appropriate in a civil ceremony, even if it is the President of the United States of America?
Presiding Anglican/Episcopal Bishop Michael Curry of the Washington’s National Cathedral wrote this week, “We pray for their well-being, for they, too, are children of God, but we also pray for their leadership in our society and in our world. We pray that they will lead in the ways of justice and truth. We pray that their leadership will truly serve not partisan interest but the common good. When we pray for them, we are actually praying for our nation, for our world, indeed we are praying for ourselves.”
In Psalm 72, we see how the prayer for the ancient Biblical kings embodied the spirit of the Israelites and gave them hope that a national leader would rise to the mandate to be mindful of the people he led. “ Give the King your judgements, O God, and your righteousness to the king’s son. That he may judge your people with righteousness and our poor with judgment. Let the mountains bring peace to the people, and the hills, by righteousness. May he judge the poor of the people, may he save the children of the needy, and may he break the pieces of the oppressor.”
Even today, the clergy intone Scripture with the hope that the new president will remember his awesome responsibilities to not only consider the issues such as the economy and foreign policy, but to remember that the nation’s leader has a solemn duty to care for the least prosperous in our land and the most vulnerable. Inaugural prayers are supposed to reaffirm that America is a religious nation and that our values, steeped in the teachings of the Bible, bring a renewed perspective to the new president that he or she must represent and serve all Americans.
We have never expected presidents to be overtly religious but Americans do care that every president have a respect for the faith community and the universal values that religion teaches all American citizens. In 1937, ZeBarney Phillips, chaplain of the U.S. Senate, wrote at President Franklin Roosevelt’s Inauguration:
“Almighty God and Heavenly Father, ruler and guardian of the world: Sanctify to the nation the meaning of this hour that Thy people with one heart and mind may acknowledge their fealty to Thee.
“Be with the President and the Vice President, as under Thee they renew their solemn pledges of devotion to their country’s weal in the high and holy offices to which again they have been called; let the blessings of Thy bounteous goodness be upon them, upon the Congress, upon the Judiciary and upon all who bear rule in our land.
“In particular, we beseech Thee for our President that, casting all his care upon Thee, he may feel underneath Thine everlasting arms. Touch Thou his lips that he may speak, in the words of the unshorn truth and never-wearying kindness Thy message for the healing of the nations, and hasten the day when men shall rise above all lesser things to those glorious heights where love shall weave a holy bond of peace enduring till earth’s shadows vanish in the light of light. Amen.”
The idea is that the prayer is supposed to inspire the president to see that his role is to do good for the citizens and to lead them to find the best in themselves.
We are at that moment now with a new president when we need to pray that he fulfills this standard in not only his policies but in setting the tone of a leader who exemplifies compassion and understanding as well as to grasp his role in bringing the world to a deeper unity despite the challenges that America and the world face today.