Should the presidential inauguration ceremony include prayers by clergy?
Should President-elect Obama say “so help me God” at the
end of his oath of office? Should Chief Justice John Roberts
ask him to?
Presidential inaugurations are transition moments in the life of our nation. They are filled with drama and meaning. Like every transition in life they cry out for a setting that include that which is transcendent and ultimate. In the secular world it is called “ceremony,” In the religious world it is called liturgy. Liturgy has always provided that quality for the crucial transitions of life. That is why liturgies are used at birth (baptism or dedication), at maturity (confirmation, Bar and Bas Mitzvahs), at the union of two people in love (holy matrimony), and at life’s end (various burial traditions). It is therefore appropriate, it seems to me, for the transition moments of a nation to be wrapped in liturgy. That is what prayer at the inaugural and the invocation “So help me, God,” provides.
What is not appropriate in our wondrous multi-cultural nation is for that prayer or the ceremony itself to become an opportunity for sectarian proclamations. Neither the prayer nor the invoking of the name of God should be addressed to a deity in such a way that any American feels not included. The Chief Justice is a Roman Catholic. President Obama has been a member of the United Church of Christ, his father was a Muslim and Jews are members of his administration. All must somehow be included in the liturgical part of the inauguration.
While no human being will ever be able to define the concept with precision, God is nonetheless the end and goal of every human religious system. No tradition, no ecclesiastical institution, no creed and no person can be said to embrace the ultimate truth of God, but all of us seek to walk into that final mystery. A prayer that is broad enough to include all Americans and that forces all into the recognition that each of us is but a small part of the world’s population is certainly appropriate. To be appropriate to all, however, is to be compromising to no one.
I hope those who are invited to provide prayers at inaugural events will understand these things and work within them.