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Have Presidential Inaugurations Always Featured Religion?

Barack Obama’s inauguration struck a religious note. In his address, he referred to God through Scripture, saying, "The time has come to set aside childish things," from I Corinthians, Chapter 9.  Furthermore, he added the words “So help me God” to the end of his oath while choosing to recite it with his hand atop the Lincoln Bible.  And, beyond this, Obama invited various ministers to deliver prayers before, during, and after the inauguration. 

When did religion first became a prominent part of the inaugural ceremony? The surprising answer is with Franklin Roosevelt. The addition of the Morning Worship Service was begun by FDR in 1933 and then repeated in 1937 and 1941, fixing the practice in inaugural tradition. FDR was also the first to feature an invocation by a religious leader (and a benediction). FDR also said a prayer at one inauguration.

Religious elements have been present from the beginning, however. While no president has ever expressly mentioned Jesus in their address, three have mentioned Christianity. And nearly all of them have alluded to God using various non-sectarian formulas, referring to the "Almighty Being," "Supreme Being," and "Nature's God" among others.

All but three presidents used a Bible when being sworn in: John Quincy Adams (who used a book of laws), Franklin Pierce and Calvin Coolidge (Pierece and Coolidge, both from New England, appeared to have been following a regional practice).

Although the presidential oath of office makes no direct reference to God, most presidents have appended the phrase “So help me God” to the end. The suggestion that George Washington actually used the phrase is commonly asserted but discounted by some historians, as pointed out on HNN last week. It may well be that the first president to add the phrase "So help me God" may have been the obscure Chester Arthur.

Religion was employed by Dwight D. Eisenhower, who included a prayer in his first inaugural address, in order to address what he considered America's excessive materialism. Like other presidents who presided during tense times, John F. Kennedy invoked religion, specifically calling in the middle of the Cold War for people to heed the command of the prophet Isaiah "to let the oppressed go free."

Obama's inauguration continued a religious tradition of diversity begun in the 1950s when Eisenhower included a rabbi. Among the ministers invited to speak throughout the week were the openly gay Episcopal bishop from New Hampshire, V. Gene Robinson, who gave the invocation for the inaugural event Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial; the female Rev. Sharon E. Watkins the general minister and president of the Christian Church, Disciples of Christ, who gave the sermon at the National Prayer Service in D.C.’s National Cathedral, the black civil rights leader Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, who gave the benediction; and lastly, the more controversial Southern Baptist Evangelical Rev. Rick Warren, who delivered the inaugural invocation.

Related Links

  • Rick Shenkman: Religion and the Inauguration