By Leah Fabel
Examiner Staff Writer 12/24/08
An often ignored minute of presidential inaugurations is shaping up to be one of the most closely watched next month as evangelical Pastor Rick Warren will momentarily test the controversial role of faith in American public life.
Past prayers have been “a sidelight,” said Jim Bendat, author of “Democracy’s Big Day,” a historical jaunt through presidential inaugurations. “When you watch the tapes, people are usually milling around during those things, but they’ll probably pay attention this year because of the selection.”
Evangelicals like Warren are nothing new to the ceremonies – Billy Graham led inaugural prayers for every president from Richard Nixon in 1969 to Bill Clinton in 1997. But in a political climate in which gay rights is a touchstone issue for many Democrats, Warren’s outspoken opposition to gay marriage has infuriated some Obama faithful.
Neither are the prayers themselves anything new. On April 30, 1789, a man referred to in history books as Dr. Prevost, bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York, led post-swearing-in prayers for President George Washington at New York City’s St. Paul’s Church.
In 1961, Catholic Cardinal Richard Cushing’s lectern caught fire due to a electrical short during the opening prayer at President John F. Kennedy’s swearing-in.
“You’d never have known it watching his face – he kept on without a hitch,” Bendat said.
But the selection of Warren is the selection of a man in a faith tradition more in the face of what scholars call American “civic religion,” or a generic approach to a deity found in phrases such as “God bless America.”