Tensions over the place of religion in America play out in presidential inaugural

There may be no clearer reflection of this moment in American religious life than the tensions surrounding prayers at President Barack Obama's inauguration.

Efforts by the Presidential Inaugural Committee to bridge the conservative-liberal divide by including an evangelical failed. Atlanta preacher Louie Giglio, known for his work to end human trafficking, withdrew from giving the benediction after the liberal group ThinkProgress found a sermon he gave in the 1990s, condemning gay relationships.

Meanwhile, the first lay person has been asked to give the invocation, at a time when the number of Americans with no formal religious ties has hit a high around 20 percent. The prayer will be delivered by Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of slain civil rights hero Medgar Evers. The ceremony Monday falls on the federal holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Christian conservatives are asking what these choices say about their place in broader society. Does their absence from the inaugural podium mean they're being pushed out of public life?

A headline on PewSitter.com, which posts news of interest to conservative Roman Catholics, read, "Obama to Use Civil Rights Activist and Not Clergy" for his inaugural invocation. Gabe Lyons, a young Christian thinker known for his pioneering Q conferences on evangelicalism, argued Giglio had been bullied off the stage by an "extreme minority" of activists.

"As gays come out of the closet, are Christians meant to swap and go hide back in closets of their own?" Lyons asked on his blog. "This zero-sum game is the most un-American of games."

The inaugural prayers are far from the only religious content of events surrounding the public swearing-in. Evangelicals will participate in, or offer prayers at, other ceremonies, including the interfaith service Obama is scheduled to attend Tuesday morning at the Washington National Cathedral. Still, the inauguration is center stage, giving special significance to those on the podium.

Addie Whisenant, a spokeswoman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, said last week that the person who would replace Giglio will hold beliefs that "reflect this administration's vision of inclusion and acceptance for all Americans." The benediction will be offered by the Rev. Luis Leon, a liberal pastor at St. John's Episcopal Church, across from the White House.

Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based national group that builds interreligious cooperation, said those who disagree with Obama have a chance to be heard in many other public arenas.

"This is a president who has made gay rights part of his agenda, so it would make sense to me that he wouldn't want somebody on the podium with him who doesn't reflect that," said Patel, who has been an adviser to the president's faith-based partnership office.

But Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar at the evangelical Dallas Theological Seminary, argued the inaugural is supposed to unite Americans across partisan lines after an election. "The problem here is if we're going to celebrate the diversity of America, which is what the inaugural representatives claim they're doing, we shouldn't have a litmus test applied to participants if it's also being recognized they are contributing in other ways to society," Bock said.

The inaugural committee is choosing the participants amid dramatic changes in religious life that some find unsettling.

For the first time in its history, the United States does not have a Protestant majority, according to a study released a few months ago by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The percentage of Protestant adults in the U.S. has reached a low of 48 percent, as the number of people with no religious affiliation has risen. Religious conservatives, whose views on marriage and other issues were once largely the norm in American society, now consider themselves an endangered minority.

Obama, who became a churchgoing Christian as an adult, has tried to reach across this religious gap. He is the first president to directly recognize the growing number of secular Americans in an inaugural speech.

"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers," Obama said in 2009.

Americans with no religious affiliation generally vote Democratic, and are expected to become as important to Democrats as evangelicals are to Republicans. A Pew analysis found 10 members of the new Congress have no stated religious affiliation and one, Arizona Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, says she specifically has no religion. All are Democrats.

Obama has also developed friendships with several evangelical leaders, including Giglio, who visited the White House and prayed at Obama's Easter prayer breakfast last year. But those efforts have sometimes upset the president's more liberal constituents.

At the 2009 inaugural, an uproar followed his choice of prominent pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation. Like Giglio, Warren hadn't made gay marriage a central focus of his ministry. But in an interview around the time of his selection, Warren had compared gay relationships to incest and pedophilia. Despite pressure from gay rights advocates to back out, Warren gave the invocation.

The tradition of including clergy prayers at inaugurals has followed a complex path, with a gap spanning more than a century.

George Washington attended a chapel service as part of his official swearing-in, but the tradition didn't stick. Although worship services were often held surrounding the inauguration, prayer at the inaugural ceremony itself was abandoned until 1937, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt reinstated the practice.

Roosevelt never unequivocally said why. But at the time, the popular Roman Catholic radio priest, the Rev. Charles Coughlin, had been attacking the president, arguing the New Deal helped banks, not American citizens. Another prominent priest, the Rev. John Ryan, publicly defended Roosevelt and the president asked him to offer an inaugural prayer, apparently as thanks for his loyalty, according to Martin Medhurst, a Baylor University political scientist who has researched inaugural prayer.

Roosevelt balanced the ticket religiously by including a Protestant clergyman to reflect the American religious majority.

Over the next few decades, presidents chose a combination of clergy from a cross-section of major American religions. Along with a Protestant and Roman Catholic, Harry Truman added a rabbi. A Greek Orthodox churchman was later featured. In 1969, Richard Nixon included a leader of the historically black African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

But just as the podium had grown crowded with clerics, the presidents-elect began to scale back. And since 1989, at the inaugural of George H.W. Bush, the honor has been bestowed exclusively on Protestants. The Rev. Billy Graham, known as "America's pastor," was the most frequent celebrant.

On Inauguration Day, another clear sign of the times will be found in a hotel away from official events. "The Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast" will feature the Rev. Pat Robertson, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and others. The keynote speaker is expected to discuss the prophetic destiny of America.