Inauguration audiences on Tuesday will hear the new President deliver the most anticipated Inaugural Address since John F. Kennedy. They’ll hear the Queen of Soul sing and Yo-Yo Ma play. They’ll listen to hear if Rick Warren gets preachy when he prays. But there’s one thing they won’t hear: Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha’olam.
That’s because for the sixth straight presidential Inauguration, rabbis won’t have a place on the dais. And the Jewish faith isn’t the only religious tradition that continues to be snubbed. Since 1985, only Evangelical Protestants have played a part in the swearing-in ceremony. That will continue again this year when megachurch pastor Warren delivers the invocation and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, an African-American Evangelical, offers the benediction. At a time when the United States is more religiously diverse than at any other point in its history, and Obama’s entire campaign was built on the notion of a newfound inclusiveness and multiculturalism, it seems a glaring omission. (See TIME’s special report on civil rights and the Obama presidency.)
The recent Evangelical Protestant monopoly began in 1989, when George H.W. Bush asked Billy Graham to deliver both the invocation and benediction (the opening and closing prayers) at his Inauguration. Graham did the same for Bill Clinton in 1993 and again in 1997. The decision to delegate the religious role to Graham seemed a reasonable alternative to filling the stage with an ever-growing number of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu and Baha’i clergy. The famous Evangelist regularly topped the list of people Americans most admired, and he prayed in fairly broad terms, referring just to “God” and using the formulation “I pray” instead of “we pray” to make clear that he was not imposing his Christian prayer on the entire citizenry. (Read Obama’s words on his Christian faith.)
But the absence of non-Christian religious leaders was felt even more deeply starting in 2001, when Graham’s son Franklin ended his invocation with an exclusive statement: “We … acknowledge you alone as our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer. We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” This was not a prayer offered on behalf of all Americans but on behalf of Christians alone. It bookended George W. Bush’s Inauguration with a benediction by Kirbyjon Caldwell that declared, “We respectfully submit this humble prayer in the name that’s above all other names, Jesus the Christ,” and instructed, “Let all who agree say ‘Amen.’ ” If you didn’t agree, there was apparently nothing for you to do but shuffle your feet.
For non-Christians, but particularly for Jews who had gotten used to having a place on the dais, the development was deeply disturbing. After all, traditionally, the religious roster at presidential swearing ins looked something like the set-up to an old joke: “A priest, a pastor and a rabbi walk into an Inauguration …” Rabbis prayed at a majority of Inaugurations that took place between 1949 and 1985, as did Catholic priests.
It is true that Jewish religious leaders weren’t on the dais in 1937, when Franklin D. Roosevelt first introduced the tradition of an Inaugural prayer. Up until then, presidential Inaugurations did not include prayers. Instead, the vice-presidential swearing in took place at a separate ceremony in the Senate chambers, after which the Senate chaplain usually offered a prayer. Roosevelt decided to merge the two events and brought the chaplain along to participate as well. But in a shrewd political maneuver, Roosevelt also opened up a second religious slot on the program for Father John Ryan, an influential figure in Catholic social teaching and a prominent supporter of the New Deal. As Mark Silk, professor of religion at Trinity College, has written, Ryan was not only known as “the Right Rev. New Dealer,” but he was also the most effective critic of Father Charles Coughlin, the notorious right-wing, anti-Roosevelt priest. Ryan’s participation in the Inauguration helped insulate Roosevelt against Coughlin’s attacks and shore up the growing – and critical – voting bloc of Catholic Democrats.