Have Presidential Inaugurations Always Featured Religion?

History Q & A

Ms. McKee is an HNN intern.

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

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    More Comments:

    Larry Myers - 2/4/2009

    I am a professor at St. John's University in New York City. I'm completing a play on Arthur called "Reincarnation of Chester A. Arthur." He is a forgotten president who was a civil rights activist. Called "the dude President," (didn t know that word was around then) he has intriguw surrounding him with reagrds to burning official records on his life. He was a widower in the White House, the most dapper & most overweight President.

    Larry N Stout - 2/2/2009

    Timur (Tamerlane) styled himself the "Sword of Islam", but he wantonly slaughtered more hundreds of thousands of Muslims than non-Muslims.
    Hitler, we're told, was a good Christian. Religion is a principle tool of self-promoting rabble-rousers...and condescending presidents. Image is everything, flag lapel pin, hand over heart. The myth-drugged People can't handle hard facts, and they deeply resent anyone who brings them up.

    Lorraine Paul - 1/26/2009

    There are few institutions on this earth which deserve to be admired. Organised religion is probably at the top of the list.

    When are the people of the United States going to cast aside religion in its political life?\

    Who cares? Does not the US have the doctrine of the Separation of State of Religion? As someone said the other day "....cries like an Evangelist found with his hand in the till".

    I would be embarrassed to present myself as trustworthy and/or worthy of high office due to my religion. My actions should speak for me.

    As a Unitarian, I do feel that the doctrine of my 'church' "Seek the Truth and Serve Humanity", is far beyond, in humanitarian terms, the doctrines of many other 'religions'. (I should mention that Unitarian to me equates with a free-thinker. Others calling themselves Unitarian may think differently)

    james joseph butler - 1/26/2009

    FDR, JFK, BHO, shrewd, pragmatic, winners. GOD. I guess Lincoln believed. Obama and W. Is GOD really part of both men? I'm inclined to think so.If they could only live by his rules. Jesus and America, we're #1, god bless F-22s.