At past inaugurations, ceremonial prayers uttered on behalf of the incoming president drew about as much attention as the flags on the podium.
Not this year.
Barack Obama’s choice of clergy is under scrutiny like no other president-elect before him, alternately outraging Americans on the left and the right as he navigates the minefield of U.S. religion.
“I can’t recall any prayers drawing so much attention,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center who specializes in religion in public life.
Gay advocates assailed Obama, while many conservative Christians were heartened, when he invited the Rev. Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist who opposes gay marriage, to deliver the inaugural invocation on Tuesday.
The tables turned when Obama asked V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Episcopal bishop, to lead prayers at Sunday’s kickoff for the inauguration at the Lincoln Memorial.
The Inauguration Committee has only released one clergy name so far for Wednesday’s National Prayer Service, which caps the inauguration. The Rev. Sharon Watkins, the first woman president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Protestant group, will deliver the sermon.
A prayer also will be offered at the National Cathedral by Ingrid Mattson, the first woman president of the Islamic Society of North America, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Islamic Society, based in Indiana, is the nation’s largest Muslim group.
Three rabbis, representing the three major branches of American Judaism, will also say a prayer at the service, according to officials familiar with the plans. The Jewish clergy are Reform Rabbi David Saperstein, Conservative Rabbi Jerome Epstein and Orthodox Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, sources said.
It is also traditional for the incoming administration to ask the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington to lead a prayer. The Most Rev. Donald Wuerl leads the archdiocese.
Like many incoming presidents before him, Obama will attend a service at St. John’s Church, dubbed the “Church of the Presidents,” before his swearing-in.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, a Methodist considered the dean of the civil rights movement, will give the inaugural benediction.
Religion has been a lightning rod for Obama since the presidential campaign – from false rumors that he is Muslim to uproar over sermons by his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
But Obama’s choice of clergy is also of greater interest because of the changing landscape of American religion. The United States is more diverse than ever before, and members of minority faiths yearn to be recognized as fully American.
“In the past, minority groups within Christianity and minority religions on the American scene were not as vocal or as sure-footed and therefore didn’t pay as much attention to the inauguration event itself or didn’t feel the need to. That’s no longer true,” said Rabbi James Rudin, who spent three decades leading interreligious outreach for the American Jewish Committee.
Even atheists are newly energized, suing to prevent prayer and mention of God at the swearing-in.
An attorney for Chief Justice John Roberts, who will administer the oath, says the president-elect prefers to conclude with the phrase, “so help me God,” as presidents before him have done.
The Constitution mandates the exact language to be used in the oath: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of president of the United States and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Some presidents have added “so help me God.”
Obama spoke openly of his faith during the election, more so than his opponent, Republican Sen. John McCain.
“This inaugural is a coming-out party for the Democrats in terms of their religious voice,” said Stephen Prothero, a religion professor at Boston University. “Democrats found their religious voice in the last election and I think there’s interest in seeing how that voice is going to sound.”
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