- Cullman, Alabama


January 10, 2013

Widow of Medgar Evers to give invocation at Inauguration



Obama made news four years ago when he selected conservative megachurch pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. The choice angered progressives who opposed Warren's activism against same-sex marriage, but was seen by many experts as a sign of Obama's willingness to work with religious conservatives after a bruising campaign.

With the country arguably more polarized in 2013, historians of religion and politics said Monday that inaugural prayers can be a unifying balm in a nation that overwhelmingly describes itself as Christian. They said they expect Obama to include strong theological references in his address.

Shaun Casey, a Wesley Theological Seminary professor who has written about faith and the U.S. presidency (and advised the Obama campaign on faith in 2008), said the president is like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln in that "he's trying to unite the nation in the face of deep division and conflict. They are trying to coax more people into the national discussion . . . and this is the last time the entire nation will pay attention to what this guy says in one sitting."

Some details of the inaugural ceremony have changed over time, including the move to the west side of the Capitol from the east side. But historians say the role of an unspecific deity has been a prominent constant. Lincoln's address at his second inauguration is the most explicitly religious in history, Casey said.

It was only in the 1970s and 1980s, historians said, with the rise of the religious right and the culture wars that Americans started caring more about who was praying over the president on the podium and how.

"It became a way of making political statements," said Randall Balmer, professor of American religious history at Dartmouth.

Progressive evangelical leader Jim Wallis said he has been asked for guidance by some of the clergy who have been involved in previous inaugurations and also some involved this year. He said he warns them against "the temptation or danger" of being only a chaplain offering a blessing.

"When people ask my advice, I always say: 'Use the occasion to remind our political leaders of their responsibility to the common good. Our involvement in these events should be prophetic in the biblical sense.' "

The inaugural committee would not release details about the scripture to be used Jan. 21. Presidents typically use the Bible.

An interfaith National Prayer Service is scheduled Tuesday at Washington National Cathedral.

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