The Challenge to Inaugural Prayer

There is a hearing today in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on California atheist Michael Newdow’s Dec. 17 motion to restrain Christian ministers from praying publicly at the inauguration. Newdow, a doctor, lawyer and licensed minister of atheism (an advocate of nothing?), says it violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

At President Bush’s 2001 inauguration, two ministers, the Rev. Franklin Graham and the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, delivered Christian invocations. The Washington Times reports that “inauguration organizers have yet to announce who will pray this year, but confirmed there will be an invocation and a benediction by ministers chosen by the president.”

After the 2001 inaugural the complaints were not that Christian ministers prayed, but that they had the audacity to pray like followers of Christ. In other words, they invoked the name of Jesus Christ in their prayers.

Graham prayed, in part:

O Lord, as we come together on this historic and solemn occasion, to inaugurate once again a president and a vice president, teach us afresh that power, wisdom, and salvation come only from your hands…

Now, O Lord, we dedicate this Presidential inaugural ceremony to you. May this be the beginning of a new dawn for America, as we humble ourselves before you and 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, Amen.

Here’s the full text of Franklin Graham’s 2001 inaugural prayer.

I remember this well because at the time I was writing and editing some of Franklin Graham’s speeches and articles, including some of his thoughts in the prayer and at the inaugural worship service at the Washington Cathedral (although I can’t say he was my most committed client. He routinely deviated from my best material!).

The Newdow lawsuit states: “It is an offense of the highest magnitude that the leader of our nation, while swearing to uphold the Constitution, publicly violates that very document upon taking his oath of office.”

The legal argument in favor of clergy at the inauguration is based on the establishment of chaplains in Congress at its inception, even before the Bill of Rights was passed. When the presence of chaplains in the Nebraska Legislature was legally challenged in 1983 by Ernest Chambers, a Nebraska lawmaker, the Supreme Court ruled against him, saying the practice had a “special nook” because it was a long-standing tradition to have government-paid chaplains.

“The Supreme Court has given its constitutional blessing, so to speak,” said Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative public-interest law firm. “We should not lose our history and the religious underpinnings it is founded on.”

Indeed. Look no further than George Washington’s 1789 inaugural address. Here’s a portion:

“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.

And in the important revolution just accomplished, in the system of their United government, the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities, from which the event has resulted, can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established, without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage.”

It is unlikely that the District Court will rule to prohibit the participation of clergy or their prayers in the Inaugural ceremonies. And because of the boldness of President Bush’s personal Christian faith (witness yesterday’s Washington Times interview), those who pray may actually name the One before whom “every knee shall bow” Philippians 2:10-11 at a future ceremony on a much grander stage.

–James Jewell


About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group ( Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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