April 2009 Church & State | People & Events


President Barack Obama’s practice of opening rallies and public meetings with non-sectarian prayer is drawing fire from advocates of church-state separation and the Religious Right.

Dan Gilgoff, who writes the “God & Country” blog for U.S. News & World Report, first revealed the practice in February. Gilgoff reported that several rallies the White House held to promote the economic stimulus package opened with clergy-led prayer that was first screened by the White House.

Gilgoff told the story of Ryan Culp, a minister in Elkhart, Ind., who turned down a request by Obama to deliver a prayer during the presidential campaign because he is a conservative Republican who did not want to be perceived as an Obama supporter. Culp was asked again now that Obama is in office and this time obliged.

The day before Culp was to give the prayer, he was required to call an aide at the White House and recite the prayer for approval. The aide told him the prayer was “beautiful.”

Prior to a town-hall meeting in Fort Myers, Fla., the White House vetted a prayer by James Bing, pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church, and in Phoenix, an administrator for the Native American Tohono O’odham Nation delivered a prayer before Obama took the stage.

Gilgoff wrote, “Though invocations have long been commonplace at presidential inaugurations and certain events like graduations or religious services at which presidents are guests, the practice of commissioning and vetting prayers for presidential rallies is unprecedented in modern history.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn agreed. Lynn said he found it odd that there would be prayers before events like this, which are non-religious in nature. He also said he was uncomfortable with the White House screening process.

“The only thing worse than having these prayers in the first place is to have them vetted, because it entangles the White House in core theological matters,” Lynn said.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., wrote on his blog that he agreed with Lynn’s conclusion, if not his reasoning. Mohler, a staunch conservative, has no objection to prayers before such events but said he does not believe they should be vetted.

“Consider what is at stake here,” Mohler wrote. “When the White House requires a prayer to be submitted in advance, it takes on an editorial role. This editorial role means that the White House is explicitly approving certain prayers for delivery. The prayer delivered in this context should bear a label that clearly identifies it as approved by the White House – government-approved prayer.”

The White House defended its action by pointing out that prayers were common during events when Obama was running for president. Americans United responded that now that Obama is in office, he is president of all Americans and said the best policy would be to drop the prayers entirely.