Prayer at the Presidential Inauguration

  • I'm watching the inauguration of the 45th president and am stunned2 that three Christian3 clergy persons pray for the president and the country, obviously in order to give the incoming president the Christian god's blessing. They explicitly ask that god to instill the necessary wisdom in him.

    While I don't have a problem with wisdom or general spirituality, I am astonished that the Christian god is invoked explicitly, and that the U.S. are explicitly labeled a gift from that Christian god.

    I have a couple of questions:

    • Is this customary?
    • How does this align with a secular government? Isn't it one?1
    • How does this go down with members of other faiths or atheists? How can a Muslim or Jew feel that the U.S. are his or her country after such prayers at the inauguration?

    1 I'm aware that there is some ongoing debate about the separation of church and state in the U.S. But the examples I read about concern mere folklorist elements like statues, crosses on buildings, and possibly a school prayer. There is also the customary "so help me god" in the oath, which one could attribute to the Christian tradition which the U.S. have without doubt. But to have such prayers initiate the presidential inauguration is a different quality, I think.

    2 This public display of religion appears probably more alien to me as a European than to the average U.S. American.

    3 After I had written the original question, more prayers or religious speeches happened, and one of them was by a Rabbi.

    `secular government` -> "Secular" means that institutionalized religion (e.g. "the church") has no business doing anything in the government. But in general, it *doesn't* mean that religious statements as a whole are banned (example: "In God we trust" is on all the money; the POTUS says it at pretty much every speech too). Of course, where "institutionalized religion" ends exactly is a matter of some debate...

    This should probably be three different questions.

    @indigochild Choose the one you feel you can answer ;-).

    What about the Rabbi Marvin Hier who read first?

    By "secular government", do you mean that all religious expressions are allowed or that none are? If the former, I do not understand your surprise. I do not know one way or the other, but I assume that Donald Trump is at least nominally Christian so it does not surprise me at the least that there would be Christian prayers. Similarly, had Bernie Sanders been elected, I would not have been at all surprised (or offended) if the Inauguration were accompanied by Jewish prayers.

    @D.Clayton the guys who look after the money *always* get to go first ;)

    @MichaelJ.My understanding of "secular government" was (and probably still is) unclear, as I realize. It is notable that the Establishment clause is complementary: Government has no right to establish *or restrict* religion. It is just not to meddle.The president, like any citizen, can certainly visit a mass on inauguration day, or even have somebody say a prayer at his, as I learned, private party in front of the Capitol. And the Bible (sorry, two Bibles) for the oath were introduced by the founding fathers, so they are grandfathered in.

    It's also interesting that the Oath of Office for the President, does *not* include the words "So help me God". However AFAIK, pretty much every President have added those words (even when the person administering the oath didn't say them - as the Chief Justice did today).

    @D.Clayton Re Rabbi Marvi: He hadn't spoken yet when I wrote this. In the very beginning (I think before anybody else) two men and a woman prayed or talked, all Christians. The first one, a round, somewhat older guy in a soutane stressed the wisdom thing so much that I was wondering whether he felt it was more necessary than usual.

    As a correction to the premise, there were three clergy blessings before the ceremony, and three after. They appear to be one Catholic, four varieties of Protestant, and one Jew. Looking at the statistics of religious views in America (according to the Pew Research Center ), this seems like a pretty reasonable approximation of the religiously affiliated US population.

    @JoelHarmon I edited that in.

    < more prayers or religious speeches happened, and one of them was by a Rabbi. this goes to the point I made below - there are many different flavors of "secular", just as there are many different flavors of "atheist".

    many would argue, and I would as an atheist, that atheists follow a religion of no religion. fundamentally, religion is a believe system - believing in nothing itself is a believe in something, thus "religious". if i were to insist on no display of religious elements at such events, i would be imposing my "religion" of no religion onto other people. so i'm perfectly fine with those religious elements, as long as the same opportunities are offered to other religions as well.

    Keep in mind that, especially in the most recent ceremony, this is more theater than it is ritual.

    Better be careful with this "European". In Polish politics such display of religious stuff, we would be considered as still being a moderate amount of lip service.

    @i486 You *know?* ;-) As far as I was able to grok religion it is all about belief.

  • indigochild

    indigochild Correct answer

    5 years ago


    Since 1933, prayer has been a consistent part of presidential inaugurations in America [Source: Newdow v Bush, Civil Action. Pg.7] . Since 1933 the President-Elect has visited a church for prayer prior to taking the oath of office, but since 1937 actual prayers have been offered during the inauguration itself.


    As noted in the question, first amendment law and the division of church-and-state is a complex topic. This topic was brought to court in President Bush (Jr.'s) first inauguration, when he was sued in a federal court for using Christian prayer in his inauguration.

    The court determined this was not a violation of the Establishment Clause. The court used the Marsh Test to determine this. Essentially, something passes the test (and is not a violation of the Establishment Clause) if the practice can be traced back to the Founding Fathers.

    The court was presented with argument supporting that George Washington included prayer at his inauguration, providing the court with reason to believe that the Founding Fathers had intended for prayer to be acceptable at inaugurations.

    Additionally, most of the inauguration is not a formal government event. It is financed by private donations and not required by law.

    Public Response

    Former President Bush was sued over his prayer, indicating that at least some people are not okay with it. However, I am unaware of any survey that would answer this (either as a direct question or because it has a reasonable proxy).

    For a somewhat detailed explanation of Marsh and other establishment clause jurisprudence you can go here:

    The Marsh test is a very interesting aspect. I didn't know about Newdow vs. Bush. It is true that part of my question is actually not political but legal, and after reading a bit in the talk linked by @KDog (thanks!) it becomes clear that the legal side is a messy affair.

    Just read the syllabus of Marsh v. Chambers. It looks like a very questionable argument to me because the same text could easily be turned into a defense of slavery, after a bit of search/replace word processing. "Historical evidence sheds light on [...] how they thought the clause applied" -- it is obvious how Washington, Jefferson and Clark thought the pursuit of happiness applied to negros, and the "one man, one vote" to women. Society changes, values change, and precedence becomes invalid.

    In both cases a plaintiff would argue that their constitutional rights are violated; so an analysis must see what the constitution has to say about the issue. If the constitution appears to support the plaintiff's case, as is the case both with slavery and an official prayer by the Nebraska lawmakers, one can ask whether the founding fathers found it O.K. The argument is that what the founding fathers openly did must be within the realm of what they thought constitutional. Different bodies or not, the argument is the same.

    @PeterA.Schneider The 14th amendment, passed later, would explicitly nullify the slavery argument but not the prayer argument.

    @GS-ApologisetoMonica: The amendment that outlawed slavery was the 13th, not the 14th.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM