President Obama Features Nonsectarian Prayer at Many Appearances, Pleasing Some and Concerning Others

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Prayer has become more common at presidential appearances under the Obama administration, including at nonreligious events such as stimulus rallies. The White House is acting in a deliberately inclusive, interfaith way that seems to limit opposition.

Church-state experts say the policy, which President Obama also followed while campaigning, does not appear to be illegal because the White House tells people who lead the prayers to be nonsectarian. But some raised concerns about prayers being scripted or reviewed in advance.

People who helped plan public events for former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton say they did not routinely organize prayers before non-religious events. Historians note that there is no clear record of prayers before presidential appearances, but they could not remember prayers being said as routinely as they are now.

The policy, first reported in U.S. News & World Report, appears to continue a new White House approach to religion: invite piety and spirituality at every opportunity, but with a new emphasis on interfaith participants and atheists. Obama mentioned "non-believers" in his inauguration speech and, even as he unveiled his faith-based office to religious conservatives at the National Prayer Breakfast, he noted that he did not consider faith-based social service programs inherently superior to secular ones.

"To me, it's entirely a new frontier of religious politics," said University of Washington communications professor David Domke, who has written about presidential rhetoric and religion. "Prayer will be different than what we've experienced since Reagan, with a much more substantial interfaith element."

White House officials said Obama's prayer policy is not a dramatic departure from previous presidents' habits or from his days as a candidate.

"Invocations have been standard practice for us since the beginning of the presidential campaign," said spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. "We view it as a brief time of reflection before an event."

Prayers have been said before Obama appearances at rallies for the stimulus program, for example, in Florida, Indiana and Illinois.

However, Maureen Shea, who was religious liaison for much of Clinton's tenure, said she does not "remember there being invocations before presentation of a policy or a presidential address."

Bill Wichterman, who worked in the liaison office under Bush, said he was "not aware of any White House planning for prayers at official events, other than the National Day of Prayer."

He said he also was unaware of the White House providing guidance to people leading prayers.

Church-state experts say that Bush did not strongly oppose sectarian prayer at his public appearances, and that even if the prayers were less frequent, they were more overtly Christian. The prayers were not orchestrated by the White House but by event organizers, they said.

There have been few complaints about the Obama policy. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State has expressed legal concerns about the government reviewing prayer language.

"The larger danger isn't for the Obama administration, it's that the prayer becomes so vacuous," said Randall Balmer, a professor of American religious history at Barnard College and an editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today. "That, to me as a person of faith, is a larger worry."

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