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In Inauguration, A 'Worship Of The Nation'

Among the sentiments of love of country and national unity, presidential inaugurations also have a religious element. Host Rachel Martin talks with Stephen Prothero, professor of American religion at Boston University, about how the role of faith in inauguration ceremonies has changed over the years.

Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are a lot of different sentiments evoked during a presidential inauguration: love of country, a sense of national unity hope and possibility. There is also a religious element in the inauguration of an American president, from the swearing in to the closing prayer.

Stephen Prothero is a professor of American Religion at Boston University. He's also the author of the book "The American Bible." He joins us to talk more about how the role of religion in this important ceremony has changed over the years.

Stephen, thanks so much for speaking with us.

STEPHEN PROTHERO: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So traditionally there are two prayers that are part of the inauguration ceremony, the opening prayer and the benediction. A benediction is really specific. As I understand it, it's really the closing part to a church service. What is its place in this particular ceremony?

PROTHERO: It's used in a number of ways. One is to give something of the power of God or something of the aura of religion to this president, who's typically, you know, prayed over. But there's also a kind of worship of the nation going on, and so typically God is asked to bless the nation, to remember that Americans are God's chosen people or this is one nation under God. This also sometimes a signing-off in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost - to give a nod to the Christian Trinity.

MARTIN: There have been a couple of controversies in 2009, the inauguration - the first inauguration of President Obama. The benediction was offered by Reverend Joseph Lowery who made pretty bold statements at the end of this message about race.

PROTHERO: That was a moment that was a little political, right? When he had this poetic, almost hip-hopish reference to people who are brown and yellow and red and white, in the hopes that in the future the white men will embrace what is right. There's been controversies as well about Rick Warren, that same year who had said that homosexuality was a sin.

That came up again this year with the Reverend Louie Giglio of Atlanta, who was invited and then decided not to come when it came out that he, too, had spoken about homosexuality as a sin. So there are political controversies that come up, for sure.

MARTIN: The United States is obviously becoming a more religiously diverse place. Has that been reflected in the inaugural ceremonies at all?

PROTHERO: It has been. As I was thinking about what we might talk about today, I went back and looked at inaugural benedictions in the vocations back to FDR. And there used to be in some ways more religious diversity. Really starting in the '40s and '50s, there was an effort to kind of cover the basis at least with Protestants, Catholics and Jews. So there was a sense of the plurality of Judeo-Christian America, and sometimes the Greek Orthodox being included in the case of John F. Kennedy.

It seems in recent years the effort is to get a kind of diversity that has more to do with ethnicity and with race, rather than with religion, to, you know, have African-Americans. And to have, in the case of Lewis Leon, bring in Hispanics. And this year, as well, Mrs. Myrlie Evers Williams is going to be the first woman, the wife of the slain civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, who is going to give a prayer. So...

MARTIN: She's also the first, as I understand it, she's also the first person who's not a member of the clergy to give a prayer.

PROTHERO: Yes, her title as Mrs. rather than reverend or reverend doctor something like that. So I think there's been a shift. But noticeably, we're not talking about Hindus or Buddhists or Sikhs or Confucians giving prayers. We're really still in the Judeo-Christian umbrella, for the most part.

MARTIN: And, of course, the president of the United States is still sworn in with the Bible. This year, the president will use three Bibles during the inauguration ceremonies. The First Lady Michele Obama's family Bible will be used during a private ceremony. And two historic Bibles will be used during the public ceremony that takes place Monday. What more do we know about these Bibles?

PROTHERO: Well, it's interesting, this sort of stuffing of symbolism into this already highly symbolic event. So now, one Bible isn't enough. You've got to have these multiple Bibles that I guess say different things. In the public ceremony, President Obama will be swearing in on the traveling Bible of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Then he'll also be using the Bible that President Lincoln used for his first inaugural swearing in and 1861.

So he's trying to lay claim, I think, to this, you know, first black president, civil rights legacy. But I think there's also an effort to position himself inside a broader and, I think, in some ways equally interesting tradition that goes back to the Puritans of, yes, seeing God has involved in the American experiment. And yet being reluctant to say, you know, God is on our side in this particular moment.

And seeing in a way religion as a producer more of questions than of answers. I think of a classic line here is Abraham Lincoln at his second inaugural, when he's looking across the country and seeing this horrible Civil War in 1865, and saying, you know, both sides are reading the same Bible and praying to the same God. And yet, the prayers of both couldn't be answered. And he sort of says what's going on?

(LAUGHTER)

PROTHERO: And he says I don't really know. The Almighty as his own purposes. And I think that's President Obama's theological home ground, as well.

MARTIN: Stephen Prothero is a professor of American Religion at Boston University. His latest book is called "The American Bible."

Stephen, thanks so much for talking with us.

PROTHERO: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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