The Common Good
April 2013

The Inaugural Prayer We Didn't Hear

by Eboo Patel, Claire Albert | April 2013

An inaugural prayer should connect the particularities of one's own faith tradition with the pluralism of the nation.

WHO SHOULD BE able to pray at a presidential inauguration and what should that prayer be?

On Jan. 20, 1937, Monsignor John A. Ryan delivered the first inaugural benediction at the inauguration of Franklin D. Roosevelt with these words: "Almighty God, ruler of nations, we beseech thee to bless the people of the United States. Keep them at peace among themselves and in concord with all other peoples. Cause justice and charity to flourish among them, that they may all be enabled to live as persons created in thine own image and likeness."

Since this first benediction, ministers, priests, bishops, cardinals, and rabbis have offered prayers at the past 18 presidential inaugurations. Almost 76 years to the day since Father Ryan's benediction, Myrlie Evers-Williams became the first layperson to deliver the inaugural invocation, and Rev. Luis León, an Episcopal priest, offered his prayer for President Obama and our nation: "... with the blessing of your blessing, we will see that we are created in your image, whether brown, black, or white, male or female, first-generation immigrant American or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor ... with your blessing we will recognize the abundance of the gifts of this good land with which you have endowed this nation."

You may remember that the selection of Rev. León, like most decisions made in Washington today, did not come without controversy and an onslaught of protests. León, who ministers at St. John's Church near the White House and is known for welcoming openly gay Christians, replaced the administration's first choice, Rev. Louie Giglio. Giglio withdrew from the ceremony after the surfacing of his controversial sermon from 20 years ago condemning gay relationships. Giglio's stance on the issue of gay marriage is in sharp contrast to the beliefs of Rev. León, whose parish will begin to bless same-sex partnerships and ordain transgender priests this summer.

Inaugural prayers have been given by Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious leaders, but never by a Muslim clergyperson. So we offer a sample inaugural prayer from Islam:

Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim. In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

The Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him, said that God's angels flock to places where God is remembered and praised. The angels encircle the community until they've stretched up to heaven and speak of the gathering with God. In turn He extends His mercy and forgiveness upon all those present, worshippers and not.

Thank You, O God, for bestowing this great responsibility of American pluralism upon us, and for creating us into diverse nations and tribes so that we may know one another, and act righteously with each other. Forgive us for all of those times when we don't.

O God, we ask that you help our nation be worthy of your angels and become a nation where everyone—regardless of where we come from, how much money we have, what name we call God, or whom we love—is safe and celebrated; a nation that inspires greatness in citizens of all nations. We invite you to imagine the multitudes of angels above us.

An inaugural prayer should connect the particularities of one's own faith tradition—the scripture, stories, heroes, etc.—with the pluralism of the nation. The theme should be inclusivity, hope, and tolerance, and the language should be the distinctiveness of the tradition the clergyperson claims as home. Living in spite of our different faiths is not what makes America great; instead what makes our nation flourish are the countless contributions we all offer because of our unique religious (and other) traditions.

Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core, writes about social justice from his perspective as a Muslim American of Indian heritage. Claire Albert is IFYC's executive office manager.

Image: Pray-info text graphic, Fifian Iromi / Shutterstock.com

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