Prayers at Presidential Inaugurations –the Challenge of Diversity

Father Leo O’Donovan, S.J., former president of Georgetown University and a longtime friend of the Biden family will deliver the invocation at Joe Biden’s inauguration as President of the United States on January 20, according to Christopher White at the National Catholic Reporter. It is no surprise that Biden, a Roman Catholic, would include a Roman Catholic clergyman among those offering prayers at the inauguration. The question is will the Biden-Harris inauguration ceremony at the U.S. Capitol feature a large number of clergy as common in the mid-twentieth-century or will it involve only one or two clergy as was usual from 1977 to 2013.

The inauguration at the U.S. Capitol is the most prominent of three major events where prayer is commonly offered in conjunction with the inauguration. The other two are a private morning service attended by the president elect (a custom kept at every inauguration since 1933 with the exception of 1973) and a large public service a day or two later at Washington National Cathedral (as has occurred every four years since 1985). The televised service at the cathedral has always included clergy from a large number of religious traditions. There were over twenty religions and denominations included in the service on January 21, 2017. This enabled presidents to restrict the number of prayers at the inauguration itself to two: an invocation and a benediction. These were sometimes offered by the same person (as in 1981, 1989, and 1993) and other times by two different people, usually one white and one African American.

In 2017, Donald Trump returned to the earlier practice of including four or more clergy in the inauguration in order to include both racial and religious diversity. For example in 1969, Richard Nixon’s ceremony included an African American Methodist bishop, a Jewish rabbi, a Greek Orthodox archbishop, a Roman Catholic archbishop, and a white evangelical. In 2017, Donald Trump’s ceremony lacked an Eastern Orthodox Christian representative, but included the other representatives (an African American Protestant, white Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Jew) along with a Hispanic man, and a white woman.

For Biden’s inauguration the constraints necessary to constrain Covid may argue for a more streamlined ceremony. On the other hand, the value of inclusion is central to Biden’s party and agenda. Thus far only Christians and Jews have prayed at the ceremony at the Capitol. The inclusion of a Native American religious leader or a Muslim would break new ground.

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