On his first full day in office, President Donald Trump began as he did Inauguration Day — with prayer. The newly christened president attended the National Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in northwest Washington, D.C.

The massive gothic edifice, the official cathedral of the Episcopalian Diocese of Washington, brought together 25 representatives from various faith communities from around the country, including Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, and evangelist Alveda King, niece of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and pastoral associate for Priests for Life. 

Each religious leader had a reading or prayer during the hour-long service that was interspersed with Christian hymns and patriotic songs. Cardinal Wuerl recited a prayer for the country:

Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage. Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will. Bless our land with honest industry, sound learning and an honorable way of life. Save us from violence, discord and confusion; from pride and arrogance; and from every evil way. Make us, who come from many nations with many different languages, a united people. Defend our liberties and give those whom we have entrusted with the authority of government the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful; and, in troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail. We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Trump era began with a manifest commitment to bring prayer front and center in the public square. This is a conspicuous evolution in a candidate who devoted little attention to prayer during the Republican primaries and most of the Republican Convention last summer.

Trump himself had rarely spoken about his own faith life before the presidential run, but once the fall campaign began in earnest, his outreach to faith and value voters — in particular evangelicals and Catholics — gained momentum and helped win him the White House.

Some understandably wondered if the work to court faith voters would end with the election. The last two months seem to signal that Trump is eager to stay connected to this vital constituency.

All inaugurations in presidential history have boasted prayers, but the Trump inauguration was unprecedented in its embrace of prayer and its direct invocation of Jesus Christ. Equally notable was his obvious inclination for evangelicals to deliver the prayers and invocations, with only one Catholic leader, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, representing the Catholic Church and one rabbi, Marvin Hier, for the Jewish community.

That preference carried over into the National Prayer Service.

Prayer services for new presidents have been held in various fashions since the inauguration of George Washington as the first president in 1789. The National Cathedral has been the setting for most of them since 1933 and the first inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In recent decades, the only time the service for new presidents has not been at the National Cathedral was for the two inaugurals for President Bill Clinton after the 1992 and 1996 elections. He preferred the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, the historic black church in Washington.

Historically, the number of participating faith leaders was small, and the main focus was on a homily delivered by a prominent pastor or preacher. Billy Graham, for example, delivered the homily for the second inauguration of Ronald Reagan in January 1985. Under the presidencies of George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the number of participants grew steadily, and the focus shifted away from a homily to a series of prayers and readings. The number of faith traditions has also grown over the years, as the country has become more religiously diverse.

This year, the list included members of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Bahá’í traditions. (See below for the complete list.) But it also had the largest contingent of evangelical ministers and preachers in history, double the number in recent years.

Among the most prominent evangelical leaders at the event were two former presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention and the granddaughter of Billy Graham, Cissie Graham Lynch; her father, Franklin Graham, was among the clergy who took part in the inauguration on Friday. Their presence underscores the sway of the evangelicals in the new administration. 

Meantime, in its official statement on the event, the National Cathedral described the prayer service as a time “for our next president to pause and contemplate the incredible responsibility he has been entrusted with and to listen as the faith community offers prayers for the office of the president.”

Reflecting the polarized times, what was supposed to be a unifying moment sparked angry criticism of the cathedral leadership by many on the left for even agreeing to allow Trump to walk through the doors. Rev. Gary Hall, former dean of the cathedral, went so far as to write a commentary for the Religious New Service proclaiming, “It is simply inappropriate to use a precious institution such as Washington National Cathedral to suggest that the church bestows its blessing on a leader so obviously beyond the pale of Christian thought. We cannot use the words, symbols and images of our faith to provide a religious gloss to an autocrat.”

Such was the level of vitriol that Bishop Mariann Budde, episcopal bishop of Washington, issued a prevaricating statement on Jan. 12 defending the decision to welcome the new president. “In times of national division,” she wrote, “the Episcopal Church is called to be a place where those who disagree can gather for prayer and learning and to work for the good of all. I am alarmed by some of Mr. Trump’s words and deeds and by those who now feel emboldened to speak and act in hateful ways. Nonetheless, I believe in the power of God to work for good and the capacity of our nation to rise to our highest ideals.”

Whatever one’s opinion about the value of this kind of interfaith service, the country received a telling lesson that even a traditional prayer service with the noble aim of praying for a new president cannot escape today’s bitter politics.

At one point in the service, the current cathedral dean, Rev. Randy Hollerith, read a passage from the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer: “Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth.”

There are many Americans, including quite a few in California, New York and Washington, D.C., who might take those words to heart. If even a few do so, then the prayer service will have accomplished some genuine good.

 

Participants in the National Prayer Service

Carlyle Begay, Navajo Nation

Right Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, bishop of Washington, Episcopal Church

Elder Todd Christofferson, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America

Narayanachar L. Dialakote, senior priest, Sri Siva Vishnu Temple, Lanham, Maryland

Rev. Dr. Rosemarie Logan Duncan, canon of worship, Washington National Cathedral, Episcopal Church

Dr. Ronnie Floyd, Cross Church, Springdale, Arkansas

Dr. Jack Graham, Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas

Very Rev. Randall Marshall Hollerith, dean, Washington National Cathedral, Episcopal Church

Bishop Harry Jackson Jr., Hope Christian Church, Beltsville, Maryland

Dr. David Jeremiah, Shadow Mountain Community Church, El Cajon, California

Evangelist Alveda King, pastoral associate, Priests for Life, Atlanta, Georgia

Pastor Greg Laurie, Harvest Christian Fellowship, Riverside, California

Cissie Graham Lynch, Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Charlotte, North Carolina

Minister Ian McIlraith, Soka Gakkai International USA, Los Angeles, California

Imam Mohamed Magid, All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, Sterling, Virginia

Right Rev. James B. Magness, bishop suffragan for Federal Ministries, Episcopal Church

Cantor Mikhail Manevich, Washington Hebrew Congregation

Pastor Ramiro Peña, Christ the King Baptist Church, Waco, Texas

Rabbi Fred Raskind, Temple Bet Yam, St. Augustine Florida

Rev. Darrell Scott, New Spirit Revival Center, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

Jesse Singh, chairman, Sikhs of America, Maryland

Dr. David Swanson, First Presbyterian Church, Orlando, Florida

Sajid Tarar, adviser, Medina Masjid, Baltimore, Maryland

Anthony Vance, National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States

His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., Roman Catholic Church