Inaugural Prayers in History

In this lesson, students will discuss the diversity of clergy members who spoke or prayed at inaugurations since 1937. As Donald R. Kennon, Chief Historian of United States Capitol Historical Society in 2005, noted, "the role of clergy in our inaugural ceremonies is a recent development that began in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt had a minister to give a benediction, and then his following inauguration had an invocation and a benediction. And it has involved Catholic priests. It has involved Protestant ministers. It's involved Jewish rabbis. So there has been a little bit more diversity. … [But we should remember that] religion supports the government. The government doesn't necessarily support or favor any specific religion…" Students will discuss: Is Kennon right? When a President-elect invites someone to pray at an inauguration, does that represent an endorsement of a particular religious view? Is it an expression that some views are legitimate and others are not? Who has not been represented at the inauguration?
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • analyze demographic information about the clergy members who prayed at inaugurations since 1933, identify religions that are not represented, and display the data in a pie chart or bar graph.
  • act as a member of a hypothetical special committee and write a plan to help the next president-elect design inaugural events, looking for ways to have diversity in events and speakers.
Essential Questions
  • Why might clergy be invited to inaugural ceremonies? What is the role of clergy at the ceremonies?
  • Should members of clergy speaking at the ceremonies represent or endorse a particular religious view? Why or why not?
  • Enduring Understandings
    • Since 1933, Presidents-elect have invited members of clergy, representing a number of religions, to speak and offer prayers or blessings at inaugural ceremonies.
    • In the United States, people are free to practice any religion they choose. The U.S. Constitution explicitly starts that the federal government does not support or favor any specific religion.
  • Donald Kennon's quote, above, written on an easel or a white board. 
  • Copies of the Diversity Matrix handout for each student


religion [ ri-lij-uh n ] (noun) an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods, activity, or period of office.

secular [ sek-yuh-ler ] (adjective) related to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred

atheist [ ey-thee-ist ] (noun) a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings.

inaugural [ in-aw-gyer-uh l ] (adjective) marking the beginning of a new venture

monotheistic [ mon-uh-thee-is-tik ] (adjective) pertaining to, characterized by, or adhering to a doctrine that there is only one God.

Suggested Procedure

1. Introduce the unit to students by sharing Donald Kennon’s quote above. Then distribute copies of the Diversity Matrix handout to students, and give them adequate time to review it.

2. Invite the whole class to discuss the following questions:

• What was going on in the world when FDR first introduced prayer at the inaugural ceremonies that may have influenced his choice to do so? (the Great Depression took place, many Americans were unemployed, Hitler became chancellor in Germany, and so on )

  • What do all of these faith leaders have in common? (all are male, and all belong to monotheistic faiths, and so on)
  • Kennon says, "The government doesn't necessarily support or favor any specific religion." Looking at this list of faith leaders, have our presidents shown a consistent preference for some kinds of faith over others? Why? (All are from monotheistic faiths; Answers will vary.)
  • Have the past presidents shown a preference for faith over atheism? Monotheistic faiths over other traditions? Why?
  • Kennon asserts that faith representation has become more diverse over time. According to the information on the handout, when did rabbis and African American religious leaders first appear? What was going on in the world that made these choices powerful symbolically? (Jews were not represented until after World War II and the Holocaust. Black ministers were not invited until 1969, after the Civil Rights Movement ended legal segregation.)
  • In 2009, President-elect Obama chose two pastors, Rick Warren and Joseph Lowery, to offer prayers at his swearing in. How did these selections narrow or expand the representations of diverse faiths? (Answers will vary.)

3. Have students complete a writing assignment to defend their answers and decisions to the questions above. They should also support their responses with a bar graph or a pie chart displaying data from the Diversity Matrix.

4. Instruct students: “Imagine you are on a committee to help the next president-elect plan events for his or her inauguration. Which ministers (if any) would you suggest inviting to deliver a prayer? Would you suggest that a Muslim man or woman lead a prayer? Why or why not?”

Alignment to Common Core State Standards/ College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards CCSS R.1, R.6, R.7, W.1, W.2, W.7, SL.3, SL.4, SL.5


Extension Activity

Some Americans believe prayer should have no place in inaugural ceremonies. In 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking to stop prayer at Obama's swearing-in. The Foundation's legal complaint states: "Interlarding those ceremonies with clergy who espouse sectarian religious dogma does not unite, but rather divides, our citizenry. Similarly, instead of instilling confidence in our governmental structure, it tears at the very foundation upon which that structure is built. … Atheists are the most despised minority in the land, and [government-sponsored prayer and government support of monotheism] stigmatizes them [atheists] and perpetuates, if not instigates, this situation."

Ask students to reflect in writing on the lawsuit's premise and consider whether allowing prayer shows, in Kennon's words, governmental "support or favor [for a] specific religion or Christian denomination.