I'm watching the inauguration of the 45th president and am stunned2 that three Christian3 clergy persons pray for the president and the country, obviously in order to give the incoming president the Christian god's blessing. They explicitly ask that god to instill the necessary wisdom in him.

While I don't have a problem with wisdom or general spirituality, I am astonished that the Christian god is invoked explicitly, and that the U.S. are explicitly labeled a gift from that Christian god.

I have a couple of questions:

  • Is this customary?
  • How does this align with a secular government? Isn't it one?1
  • How does this go down with members of other faiths or atheists? How can a Muslim or Jew feel that the U.S. are his or her country after such prayers at the inauguration?

1 I'm aware that there is some ongoing debate about the separation of church and state in the U.S. But the examples I read about concern mere folklorist elements like statues, crosses on buildings, and possibly a school prayer. There is also the customary "so help me god" in the oath, which one could attribute to the Christian tradition which the U.S. have without doubt. But to have such prayers initiate the presidential inauguration is a different quality, I think.

2 This public display of religion appears probably more alien to me as a European than to the average U.S. American.

3 After I had written the original question, more prayers or religious speeches happened, and one of them was by a Rabbi.

  • 21
    secular government -> "Secular" means that institutionalized religion (e.g. "the church") has no business doing anything in the government. But in general, it doesn't mean that religious statements as a whole are banned (example: "In God we trust" is on all the money; the POTUS says it at pretty much every speech too). Of course, where "institutionalized religion" ends exactly is a matter of some debate...
    – user11249
    Jan 20, 2017 at 16:58
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    This should probably be three different questions. Jan 20, 2017 at 16:59
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    What about the Rabbi Marvin Hier who read first?
    – D. Clayton
    Jan 20, 2017 at 17:44
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    By "secular government", do you mean that all religious expressions are allowed or that none are? If the former, I do not understand your surprise. I do not know one way or the other, but I assume that Donald Trump is at least nominally Christian so it does not surprise me at the least that there would be Christian prayers. Similarly, had Bernie Sanders been elected, I would not have been at all surprised (or offended) if the Inauguration were accompanied by Jewish prayers.
    – Michael J.
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:16
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    many would argue, and I would as an atheist, that atheists follow a religion of no religion. fundamentally, religion is a believe system - believing in nothing itself is a believe in something, thus "religious". if i were to insist on no display of religious elements at such events, i would be imposing my "religion" of no religion onto other people. so i'm perfectly fine with those religious elements, as long as the same opportunities are offered to other religions as well.
    – dannyf
    Jan 21, 2017 at 1:19

5 Answers 5


Is this customary?

Yes, there is a whole wiki on it. Obama had pastor Rick Warren at his inauguration.

How does this align with a secular government? Isn't it one?

The government is still secular. What makes the government secular is that a religious component is not a mandated component. You can become president without prayers. More importantly no other part of the US government is tied to religious requirements. That is what makes a government secular

How does this go down with members of other faiths or atheists? How can a Muslim or Jew feel that the U.S. are his or her country after such prayers at the inauguration?

There are some that agree with your sentiment, but they are generally a minority. The general view of these prayers is either (1) Meh or (2) that's nice, but it doesn't mean the country is exclusively Christian. Again, remember that the personal religious preferences of the president do not mean that the government is religious; this ties back to separation of Church and State

  • 26
    @PeterA.Schneider Most of this ceremony is not a constitutional act, most of it is a mix of tradition and celebration. The prayers really are based on the preferences of the president-elect (or, more realistically, the most politically advantageous move). Jan 20, 2017 at 17:22
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    "You can become president without prayers." Are we sure about that? I'm not saying you're wrong but this doesn't seem obvious. Did trump pick who says prayers, and which prayers? Furthermore, would I be allowed then, to have a big islamic prayer session before my inauguration?
    – Cruncher
    Jan 20, 2017 at 19:46
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    @Cruncher Yes. There is no constitutional requirement, nor any legislative requirement for prayers. If its not there it doesn't exist. Its just tradition/political value. That also means that in theory you can have your scientology prayer in Klingon, it would just be politically moronic. Jan 20, 2017 at 20:23
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    @PeterA.Schneider The only "constitutional" part of this whole day was the administering of the oath of office. All the rest is pomp and circumstance, and has no status under the Constitution. Jan 21, 2017 at 1:06
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    @Brad Alternatively, if you don't allow prayer, you have a religious freedom problem. Only hearing what you want to listen to is a convenience; acting according to and expressing your beliefs (within reason) is a Constitutional right. This is unrelated to minority or majority status.
    – jpmc26
    Jan 22, 2017 at 18:05


Since 1933, prayer has been a consistent part of presidential inaugurations in America [Source: Newdow v Bush, Civil Action. Pg.7] . Since 1933 the President-Elect has visited a church for prayer prior to taking the oath of office, but since 1937 actual prayers have been offered during the inauguration itself.


As noted in the question, first amendment law and the division of church-and-state is a complex topic. This topic was brought to court in President Bush (Jr.'s) first inauguration, when he was sued in a federal court for using Christian prayer in his inauguration.

The court determined this was not a violation of the Establishment Clause. The court used the Marsh Test to determine this. Essentially, something passes the test (and is not a violation of the Establishment Clause) if the practice can be traced back to the Founding Fathers.

The court was presented with argument supporting that George Washington included prayer at his inauguration, providing the court with reason to believe that the Founding Fathers had intended for prayer to be acceptable at inaugurations.

Additionally, most of the inauguration is not a formal government event. It is financed by private donations and not required by law.

Public Response

Former President Bush was sued over his prayer, indicating that at least some people are not okay with it. However, I am unaware of any survey that would answer this (either as a direct question or because it has a reasonable proxy).

  • 3
    For a somewhat detailed explanation of Marsh and other establishment clause jurisprudence you can go here: becketfund.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/…
    – user9790
    Jan 20, 2017 at 18:17
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    The Marsh test is a very interesting aspect. I didn't know about Newdow vs. Bush. It is true that part of my question is actually not political but legal, and after reading a bit in the talk linked by @KDog (thanks!) it becomes clear that the legal side is a messy affair. Jan 20, 2017 at 22:27
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    Just read the syllabus of Marsh v. Chambers. It looks like a very questionable argument to me because the same text could easily be turned into a defense of slavery, after a bit of search/replace word processing. "Historical evidence sheds light on [...] how they thought the clause applied" -- it is obvious how Washington, Jefferson and Clark thought the pursuit of happiness applied to negros, and the "one man, one vote" to women. Society changes, values change, and precedence becomes invalid. Jan 21, 2017 at 16:31
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    In both cases a plaintiff would argue that their constitutional rights are violated; so an analysis must see what the constitution has to say about the issue. If the constitution appears to support the plaintiff's case, as is the case both with slavery and an official prayer by the Nebraska lawmakers, one can ask whether the founding fathers found it O.K. The argument is that what the founding fathers openly did must be within the realm of what they thought constitutional. Different bodies or not, the argument is the same. Jan 21, 2017 at 21:57
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    @PeterA.Schneider The 14th amendment, passed later, would explicitly nullify the slavery argument but not the prayer argument. Jan 23, 2017 at 6:45

Is this customary?

Yes. The United States is a majority Christian nation. Politicians act in that reality. Also, a lot of politicians seem to be sincerely religious people who want to speak in this way.

How does this align with a secular government? Isn't it one?

You have to remember that we also have freedom of religion (that includes freedom to practice one's religion) in the United States and sometimes that can create a delicate balance. Imagine if someone said to Trump, "you can say whatever you want, just don't mention your religious beliefs". While that would be very secular, it would also be prohibiting a type of speech that many people believe is entirely appropriate, even important.

We do not have religious requirements in government. We do not have an official religion. We have no religious tests for office, other than having to get elected. Yes, various religious groups do sometimes push on this at the boundaries, particularly in state and local governments. And anti-religious groups push too, sometimes even getting religious expression that should be permitted suppressed out of a fear of legal problems.

There isn't a perfect balance, but we do the best we can.

How does this go down with members of other faiths or atheists? How can a Muslim or Jew feel that the U.S. are his or her country after such prayers at the inauguration?

Opinions vary widely. From my experience, there are more objections from the Christian side that governments aren't sufficiently involved with religion. There is certainly a vocal minority on the atheist, Jewish, and Muslim sides that say governments preference Christianity too much. But there's also a vocal Christian minority who try to ban the building of mosques or even argue that Islam should not receive the protections under US law that other religions get.

Politics is a messy business, especially in cases where you are trying to balance competing values, I don't think anyone thinks the United States gets it perfect.

  • 1
    Yes, I realized anew that the Establishment Clause is a nice example of dialectics (the government does not establish a religion but guarantees free religious exercise). It is clearly not a purging of religion from the public realm. Jan 20, 2017 at 22:52
  • Right and these two things frequently come into conflict in cases like this. There isn't, at least in my opinion, a clear right answer to these kinds of questions. Surely there is some degree that is too far in either direction, but there's a big, squishy middle. Jan 20, 2017 at 22:53

Is this customary?

Pandering to constituents is a custom in the US. Trump's base includes in no small part evangelical Christians, so it makes sense that they'd incorporate some form of Christian ceremony to make them happy.

How does this align with a secular government? Isn't it one?

We have a secular government, but the US, as a whole, is hardly secular, and has a long history of Christianity. For example, we've never had a president that wasn't Christian (aside from some debate about some of our earliest presidents who may have been atheist or deists or agnostics on some level)

How does this go down with members of other faiths or atheists?

It's tolerated, though not beloved by all by any means. There are plenty of people who would prefer religious ceremony be taken completely out of politics but, at the end of the day, politicians must appease their voters and a lot of voters are still vehemently Christian.

How can a Muslim or Jew feel that the U.S. are his or her country after such prayers at the inauguration?

Well, Trump is a rather unique president in that he has shown no effort or concern at all about accommodating anyone outside of his preferred demographic. He's entering office with the lowest approval rating of any US president in modern polling history. I think it's fair to say that a lot of Muslims (and possibly Jews) don't feel that Trump represents their country.

  • 2
    They weren't atheists, they were deists or agnostics, iirc.
    – user4012
    Jan 20, 2017 at 23:51
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    The last comment is way off mark. Most Jews who ARE devoutly religious are far more likely to have been "R" voters; and non-religious Jews' politics has almost nothing to do with their (less practiced) religion and everything to do with being a domestic political block whose origin lies in emigration from mostly Eastern Europe (where left wing politics was enormously popular among Jews in general at the turn of the century). You'll note that the control group (Jewish descendants of Soviet immigrants) are majorly anti-left wing, whether religious ones or irreligious ones.
    – user4012
    Jan 20, 2017 at 23:55
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    @blip - s/other republicans/anyone/g; FTFY.
    – user4012
    Jan 21, 2017 at 0:03
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    And, again, this isn't a "R v D" thing. I'm merely stating that he's a president that hasn't pandered to groups he doesn't want to pander too--which makes sense, as he's not a typical politician.
    – user1530
    Jan 21, 2017 at 0:26
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    @user4012 Trump has, via the nostalgic "again" (like before 1964?) and via Bannon, a strong affiliation withe the alt-right, which in turn has a large overlap with white supremacists. Those, in turn, are of course antisemitic as well as anti-anything except themselves. They do sometimes align with Israel hardliners, mostly because they are sympathetic to their fighting their darker-skinned neighbors; but it would be naive to think that there is no antisemitic swamp there. The intellectual leaders pave the way, pretending innocence, and the ghouls from the swamp then do the dirty work. Jan 21, 2017 at 9:31

How does this align with a secular government? Isn't it one?

i think it depends on your definition of "secular".

one interpretation would be religion-free. meaning that the governmental activities have no religious elements.

another interpretation would be religion-agnostic. meaning that the governmental activities can have religious elements so long as all religious elements have equal rights (maybe obligations as it may be) to participate.

plus, for things like this, tradition / custom plays a big role too.    

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    And how does an inauguration that is purely Christian fit into either of those definitions of secular?
    – Cruncher
    Jan 20, 2017 at 19:50
  • @Cruncher what does "purely christian" mean?
    – user1530
    Jan 20, 2017 at 21:36
  • Where was the Wiccan at the inauguration? Where was the Scientologist? Jan 20, 2017 at 22:46
  • @blip purely Christian as in, only Christian. No other religions were involved
    – Cruncher
    Jan 20, 2017 at 23:34
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    @Cruncher well, the US has no official religion. But we don't prohibit the practices of any particular religion. So we can have a secular society, but still have religion a part of it.
    – user1530
    Jan 20, 2017 at 23:39

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