Inaugural Prayers Offer Sectarian Messages, Irony

Franklin Graham

Donald Trump’s inauguration featured a record number of prayers — three invocations (opening prayers) and three benedictions (closing prayers), several from anti-LGBT clergy members and some notably sectarian in what is usually a nonsectarian event.

Also, before the inauguration, Trump attended a prayer service featuring the Rev. Robert Jeffress, a notably anti-LGBT, anti-Muslim minister from Texas.

The inauguration itself featured five Christian clergy members and one Jewish one, and most of the Christians prayed in the name of Jesus, something that those who give inaugural prayers usually avoid, striving for an inclusive approach. And in his benediction, the infamously anti-LGBT Rev. Franklin Graham read a Bible verse asserting that Jesus is the "one mediator" between God and humanity. This came immediately after the appearance of the one Jewish clergy member, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. 

Trump is not known for religiosity, but he courted the Christian right and won much support there. Yet some aspects of the Christian messages as well as the Jewish one sat rather oddly with Trump's reputation.

Rev. Dr. Samuel Rodriguez of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference read a modern translation of the Beatitudes, part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount — asserting that the poor and the humble are blessed, at the inauguration of a man noted for wealth and ego. Hier noted in his prayer that "a nation’s wealth is measured by her values and not by her vaults."

Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Detroit-based Great Faith Ministries International prayed for Trump to receive "the meekness of Christ" and read from the lyrics of "We Shall Overcome" — an anthem of the civil rights movement.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, gave the first benediction, and reading from the Book of Wisdom, in which King Solomon prays for guidance to lead Israel: “Send her forth from your holy heavens and from your glorious throne dispatch her that she may be with me and work with me, that I may know what is pleasing to you.”

Rodriguez followed with his message from the Beatitudes, but then came a preacher of the “prosperity gospel,” Pastor Paula White-Cain of Florida’s New Destiny Christian Center. She prayed for God to “heal our divisions” and for the United States to be a “beacon of hope to all people.” 

White-Cain is not known to be anti-LGBT, but Dolan and Rodriguez are. Dolan was one of the leading opponents of civil marriage equality in New York State. Rodriguez called the Supreme Court’s 2015 marriage equality decision “a radical transformation” of marriage “via the conduit of judicial and executive fiat.”

Hier, Graham, and Jackson delivered the benedictions. Graham, who heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, founded by his father, is one of the nation's most anti-LGBT clergy members. He supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in his home state of North Carolina (eventually struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court), has said advances in LGBT rights have the U.S. on the edge of a “spiritual cliff,” and has even praised Russia’s law against so-called gay propaganda. He also denounced the city of Charlotte’s adoption of a law banning anti-LGBT discrimination in public accommodations; the state passed the homophobic, transphobic House Bill 2 in response to the Charlotte ordinance. Graham’s charitable organization, Samaritan’s Purse, has given money to the bakers sued for refusing to serve a same-sex couple in Oregon.

Trump did not have an inaugural poem read. Barack Obama’s second inauguration, in 2013, featured a gay Latino poet, Richard Blanco.

At the private pre-inauguration service at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, Trump heard a sermon from Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Jeffress has "called Islam and Mormonism heresies 'from the pit of hell,' suggested that the Catholic church was led astray by Satan, accused Obama of 'paving the way' for the Antichrist and spread false statistics about the prevalence of HIV among gays, who he said live a 'miserable' and 'filthy' lifestyle," CNN notes.

Jeffress did not make such inflammatory remarks in today's sermon, a transcript of which was obtained by The Washington Post. But the preacher, an early and fervent Trump supporter, told the incoming president that "God has raised you and Vice-President-elect Pence up for a great, eternal purpose."

Jeffress told the story of Nehemiah, a prophet from the Hebrew Bible (to Christians, the Old Testament) who built a wall around Jerusalem to protect it from attack. "You see, God is not against building walls!" Jeffress said. Nehemiah's critics, he said, "were the mainstream media of their day."

He also said Trump was "the only candidate who possessed the leadership skills necessary to reverse the downward trajectory of our nation" and called Mike Pence "a great and godly man." Read the full sermon here.

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