At Inaugural Prayer Service, a Glimpse of the Pastor-in-Chief’s Vision

The Tuesday service reflected Obama's call for a more inclusive America.

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AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

People leave the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013, after the National Prayer Service, attended by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, and their spouses. The 106-year-old Episcopal church has long hosted presidential inaugural services., this one following Monday's 57th Presidential Inauguration.

Today at the Washington National Cathedral’s Inaugural Prayer Service, United Methodist minister Adam Hamilton told President Obama that perhaps he had missed his calling. “Unlike any other President that we’ve had, you have the ability to cast vision and inspire people,” he said. “You should have been a preacher.”

It was a modest joke, but it had resonance after an inaugural speech when Obama sounded, at times, very much like a preacher. The President, whom Atlanta reverend Andy Stanley on Monday called “America’s Pastor-in-Chief,” linked the greatness of the U.S. to its credo of equality. He called for Americans to accept “our gay brothers and sisters,” fully welcome “the striving, hopeful immigrants,” and equally respect “our wives, our mothers, and daughters.” Those three priorities were reflected in Tuesday’s prayer service, which featured gays, Latinos, and women in key liturgical roles.

The very first words of the service–the welcoming of honored guests to the Lord’s house–were delivered in Spanish. This opening was then translated into English, a subtle theological move to put the Spanish-speaking church on an equal plane with America’s Anglo churches. It was not a one-off inclusion. Later on in the service, Rev. Gabriel Salguero of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition included the liturgical refrain, “La palabra de dios” (the word of the Lord).

Then Rev. Nancy Wilson, the moderator of the inclusive and affirming Metropolitan Community Churches, read the morning’s first scripture passage, from the prophet Isaiah. It was the first time that an openly gay minister addressed a president at an Inaugural Prayer Service. The choice was noteworthy. Rev. Luis Léon replaced the less-than-affirming Louie Giglio as the giver of yesterday’s inaugural benediction after anti-gay remarks Giglio made in 1990s recently surfaced, and the Washington National Cathedral, the site of the Inaugural Prayer Service since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, announced two weeks ago that it would begin marrying same-sex couples.

A man preached the main sermon, but women had significant roles in the service. In addition to Wilson, participants included Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary; Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly; and Allison Mondel, cantor at Washington National Cathedral.

While the service featured no familiar Evangelical mainstays, it was a classic American multi-faith event. Jewish, Muslim and Episcopal cantors sang sacred refrains; beloved Christian hymns included mainline staples “For the Beauty of the Earth” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessings”; and gospel choirs reminded everyone of Martin Luther King Jr.’s ethic of social justice. But the prayer service also reflected Obama’s call for a more inclusive America–and may be a harbinger of how America’s faithful life will change over the next four years.