Why Religious Invocations at Presidential Inaugurations?

Description 1 Photo of Louie Giglio in Tokyo, Japan.  Night of the Passion Tour October 13, 2008. |  Source Digital Camera. |
Description 1 Photo of Louie Giglio in Tokyo, Japan. Night of the Passion Tour October 13, 2008. | Source Digital Camera. | Author ...

President Barack Obama on Tuesday, January 9, 2013, tapped the Rev. Louie Giglio of Atlanta's Passion City Church to deliver the benediction during his second inauguration overlooking the Mall of the U.S. Capitol Building later this month. However, less than 48 hours later, with the controversy surrounding Giglio's past statements about homosexuality, Giglio decided to withdraw from giving the address stating: "It is likely that my participation, and the prayer I would offer, will be dwarfed by those seeking to make their agenda a focal point of the inauguration."

During his sermon, "In Search of a Standard -- Christian Response to Homosexuality," delivered a decade ago, Giglio told his parishioners that being gay is a sinful "choice" and that gay people will be prevented from "entering the Kingdom of God." The "only way out of a homosexual lifestyle ... is through the healing power of Jesus," he continued.

Just four years ago at his first inauguration, Barack Obama chose evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. While Warren has been involved in some positive activities during his ministry, he has been a leading and outspoken opponent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, and in particular, he worked as one of the chief lobbyists for the passage of Proposition 8 in California delegitimizing marriage for same-sex couples. In his public statements, he likened marriage for same-sex couples to incestuous marriage between a brother and sister and to polygamy. In November 2012, Warren went further by telling CNN's Piers Morgan that being gay is a bit like eating arsenic or "punching a guy in the nose." In addition, Warren has called into question the concept of separation of religion and government, and he said that Obama has "intentionally infringed upon religious liberties" with his contraception mandates.

Obama's choice of Giglio and Warren, even if they had not been divisive figures, to give blatantly sectarian addresses at presidential inaugurals raises a number of critical issues. If the U.S. truly stands as a country dedicated to the concept of the separation of religion and government, as articulated by the First Amendment, why then do presidential inaugurals include "invocations" (supplications or prayers to God), and "benedictions" (a short prayer asking for divine assistance, blessings, and guidance given usually at the close of religious services)? In fact, Warren invoked the name of Jesus during his invocation four years ago, and closed by reciting the Lord's Prayer.

And I will go even further: Why indeed does the government require the practice at presidential and other "swearing in" ceremonies of the placement of right hands upon the Bibles (composed of the Jewish Bible and the Christian Testaments) and a swearing to the name of "almighty God." Furthermore, why do we hire chaplains to deliver prayers at the daily openings of Congressional sessions, all paid for by public tax dollars?

Many of our framers, the chief architects of the United States Constitution, most clearly did not have these measures in mind. James Madison, familiarly called the "Father of the Constitution," was most responsible for the First Amendment along with Thomas Jefferson.

Virginia was one of the first states following the Revolutionary War to address the issue of religion and government when Thomas Jefferson, who held deist beliefs, drafted "An Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom" in 1777. Jefferson's proposal passed into law in 1786 in Virginia. Then, constitutional framers such as Jefferson and Madison negotiated a compromise with Protestant sectarians, which led to the clause written into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." Though nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does the phrase "separation of church and state" appear, it was originally drawn from a letter President Thomas Jefferson sent on January 1, 1802 to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists Association.

Jefferson held deep concerns over the possibility of erosion of First Amendment religious freedoms, as did Madison. In his "Letter to Edward Livingston," July 10, 1822, Madison opined: "Every new and successful example, therefore, or a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together."

Madison argued against the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress, writing in his "Detached Memoranda," circa 1820: "The Constitution of the U.S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes... The establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles... "

Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831-1832 conducting research for his epic work, Democracy in America. He was astounded to find a certain paradox: on one hand, he observed that the U.S. promoted itself around the world as a country separating "church and state," where religious freedom and tolerance were among its defining tenets, but on the other hand, he witnessed that: "There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America" (Tocqueville, 1840/1956, pp. 303-304).

He answered this apparent paradox by proposing that in this country with no officially sanctioned governmental religion, denominations competed with one another and promoted themselves in order to attract and keep parishioners, thereby making religion even stronger. While the government was not supporting Christian denominations and churches, per se, religion to Tocqueville should be considered as the first of its political institutions since he observed the enormous influence Christian denominations in particular had on the political process.

Though he favored U.S. style democracy, he found its major limitation to be in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs. In a country that promoted the notion that the majority rules, this effectively silenced minorities by what Tocqueville termed the "tyranny of the majority." This is a crucial point because in a democracy, without specific guarantees of minority rights -- in this case minoritized religious rights -- there is a danger of religious domination or tyranny over religious minorities and non-believers. The majority, in religious matters, have historically included adherents to mainline Protestant Christian denominations who often imposed their values and standards upon those who believed otherwise.

Everyone in our country has the right to hold any, or no, religious beliefs as they consider appropriate to suit their lives. This is a basic constitutional right, and more importantly, a basic human right to which all are entitled. Many of the framers of the U.S. Constitution were well aware of the dangers of entangling religion with governmental activities and public policy.

So I again ask, why are we instituting religious invocations and benedictions at presidential inaugurals, and at congressional and other governmental ceremonies? In actuality, how "separate" have we crafted religion and government in the United States?