The tradition of a prayer service for newly sworn-in presidents goes back to the start of the country, and since the 1930s most of the services have been held at the cathedral. They have become increasingly interfaith over time and have included national clergy from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh traditions. For the first time, the 23 faith leaders included an openly gay clergy member: the Rev. Elder Nancy Wilson, moderator of Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian denomination that focuses on outreach to the LGBT community.
After the drama and pomp of the inauguration ceremony and the let-loose vibe of Monday night’s inaugural balls, the prayer service — even in the cavernous neo-Gothic cathedral in Northwest Washington — felt almost intimate, with three rows of faith leaders seated on a dais a few feet in front of the first pew, which held the president and first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Biden and his wife, Jill Biden.
On the dais were some of the United States’ most prominent clergy, people who represent some of the country’s largest faith communities. In one row, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, was seated next to Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of the Episcopal Church, who was seated next to Archbishop Demetrios of America, primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America.
Several prayers were offered, dramatically, from the center of the nave. Imam Abdullah Khouj, from the Islamic Center of Washington, gave a traditional call to prayer in Arabic just after Cantor Mikhail Manevich of Washington Hebrew Congregation intoned a prayer in Hebrew.
Obama was offered a quilt of prayers to a God described using different names and personalities. Wuerl gave a reading describing humanity as “afflicted in every way but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair.” National Association of Evangelicals President Leith Anderson called to “faithful God . . . you are gracious, O lover of souls.”
Yet leaders of organized religion are distinctly aware of the challenges of reaching a changing America. The fastest-growing faith group in the country consists of people who say they are religiously unaffiliated.
Hamilton, the Methodist minister from Kansas, seemed made for this time, this president; he has written on embracing “the gray” area and calls himself a “passionate centrist.” His sermon was a plea for the shaping of some shared priorities, ideally — to his mind — ones revolving around “a deep and abiding faith in God.” It tried to forge U.S. history to scriptural history, weaving the story of Moses seeking freedom for Hebrew slaves with the poem on the Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .”) and with the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.