When Barack Obama's presidential campaign contacted Ryan Culp last year to ask him to deliver a prayer at an Obama rally in Culp's native Elkhart, Ind., the high school wellness teacher declined. "I'm a conservative Republican," Culp, who met his wife and raised his two kids in the same evangelical church in which he was brought up, said in a phone interview. "I didn't want to be perceived to be a supporter of a Democratic campaign."
Earlier this month, though, when the White House phoned Culp to say that President Obama was returning to Elkhart—this time for a nationally televised town hall meeting to sell his economic stimulus plan—and asked him to open the event with a prayer, he agreed. "It was an opportunity to say that we're not Democrats or Republicans," said Culp, 36, "but Americans searching for an answer."
The day before the president arrived in Elkhart, Culp spent an hour and a half crafting his prayer, roughly a minute and 20 seconds long, before calling an aide from the White House Office of Public Liaison to recite it for vetting, as the administration requested. "She said that it was beautiful and that there shouldn't be a problem with it but that she would call in the morning if there was," Culp recalls.
The White House had no revisions for the prayer, which opened with the line: "Dear Heavenly Father, we come to you this day thanking you for who you are—a God that cares about each of our needs, our desires, and our fears." Culp delivered it the following day at Obama's town hall meeting, landing a handshake from the president and mentions in several local papers.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience for Culp has become routine for President Obama: In a departure from previous presidents, his public rallies are opening with invocations that have been commissioned and vetted by the White House.
During Obama's recent visit to Fort Myers, Fla., to promote his economic stimulus plan, a black Baptist preacher delivered a prayer that carefully avoided mentioning Jesus, lest he offend anyone in the audience. And at Obama's appearance last week near Phoenix to unveil his mortgage bailout plan, an administrator for the Tohono O'odham Nation delivered the prayer, taking the unusual step of writing it down so he could E-mail it to the White House for vetting. American Indian prayers are typically improvised.
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, according to religion and politics experts.
Interviews with former White House aides and official presidential archivists going back to the Carter administration turn up no evidence of similar programs, though some of Ronald Reagan's events featured invocations from clergy from a variety of religious traditions. The Reagan White House appears to have received copies of the invocations after they were delivered, as opposed to before, according to Ronald Reagan Presidential Library archivist Lisa Jones.
"If a similar thing had been done by President Bush's White House, I guarantee you there would have been a lot of people crying foul," says Bill Wichterman, deputy director of the Office of Public Liaison under President George W. Bush. "Democrats can do this with immunity, but when Republicans do it, it becomes controversial."
The Obama administration may have skirted controversy by scheduling the invocations to be delivered before the president arrives at the events—and before national cable network cameras start rolling. "Having prayers in places like Indiana where public prayers are commonplace would help the president," says John Green of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "Whereas seeing it on national TV would cause controversy because there are places where these things are less popular."
The Obama White House declined to comment about the program, other than to say that it has "been standard since the campaign," according to spokeswoman Jen Psaki. So far, the names of those delivering invocations have appeared on the official presidential schedules that the White House distributes to the press. Culp is described in a press schedule as "a well-respected faith leader in the community."
But many church/state experts are unfamiliar with the program. "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," Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said upon learning of the Obama invocations.
None of the three invocation givers at Obama's presidential events, who were put in touch with the White House by local political operatives and elected officials, said they were asked to change their prayers after vetting. But Lynn said he was disturbed by the existence of a vetting process. "Why would you even request getting a copy of the prayer in advance if you didn't want to exercise the power to change it or even cancel it?" he said.
James Bing, the pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church in Fort Myers, Fla., said he chose to self-censor his prayer. "For some strange reason, the word Jesus is like pouring gasoline on fire for some people in this country," he said. "You learn how to work around that."
"Some of us have come here today with hope destroyed," Bing said in his prayer. "Bad news abounds concerning people we know and love. Securities we took for granted have been lost, and jobs have been downsized or curtailed, or circumstances have diminished our ability to manage as we once could."