Presidential Prayers: To Whom It May Concern

Presidential Prayers: To Whom It May Concern

By Maggie Gallagher - January 14, 2009

How should we pray together?

Michael Newdow's answer is: not at all. According to Newdow's lawsuit, which will be heard by a federal judge this week, praying at an inauguration inflicts emotional distress on folks like him who should have a right to watch the swearing in without encountering others' faith in supernatural beings or being. Plus, Newdow says, the words "so help me God" in the oath of office are unconstitutional.

Most of the rest of us understand that prayers on great public occasions are woven into the DNA of our nation. The granddaddy of all inaugural prayers took place in September 1774 at the First Continental Congress. It was a New Yorker (even back then!) who, according to John Adams, first objected to a proposal to open with prayer, saying, "We were so divided in religious sentiments -- some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists -- that we could not join in the same act of worship."

Then something wonderfully and distinctively American happened: "Mr. Samuel Adams arose and said that he was no bigot and could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country."

So the next morning America's founding fathers bowed their heads as an Episcopal clergyman prayed fervently "for America, for the Congress, for the Province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially the town of Boston" (then under attack).

"It was enough," said John Adams, "to melt a heart of stone. I saw the tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave, pacifist Quakers of Philadelphia."

More than 20 years later, Ben Franklin (who was not exactly a charter member of the religious right of his day) reminded his fellow Americans at the Constitutional Convention:

"In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?"

After all, in the days of the Declaration and war for independence, "we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered."

"Do we imagine," Franklin asked, "that we no longer need his assistance?"

Watching President-elect Obama laboriously attempt to assemble the most inclusive prayer team ever (a woman, a gay bishop and a Baptist preacher -- isn't there a joke like that?), one has to feel anew our enduring need of divine assistance in holding together this war-weary and culture-war-torn great nation.

Episcopalian Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who will pray at President-elect Obama's request on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday, has been reading through inaugural prayers in history. He is "horrified" at how "specifically and aggressively Christian they were," according to The New York Times.

Yes, it is true that even back in 1953, Father Patrick O'Boyle prayed, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (alongside a prayer by Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver). At FDR's 1945 inaugural, Monsignor John Ryan prayed, "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost ... Through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Oh, the horror of it all!

Bishop Robinson may have inadvertently relieved some folks' minds by making it clear that his prayer "will not be a Christian prayer and I won't be quoting Scripture or anything like that."

Robinson is ruminating on alternatives such as praying to "the God of our many understandings," a language he said he learned during his stint in alcohol rehab.

Perhaps in the future, taking Christian pity on the poor Michael Newdows of the world, presidential prayers can be re-addressed: To Whom It May Concern.

Copyright 2009, Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher

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