By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country
Reporting my piece on the Obama White House commissioning and vetting prayers for the president's rallies, I spoke with aides and official archivists for presidents going back to the Carter administration. I couldn't find a White House precedent for the Obama prayer program. The Reagan White House came closest. But I was intrigued by the aides' and archivists' reports on how public prayer figured—or didn't—into previous White Houses.
Aides from George W. Bush's White House said flatly that the White House wasn't involved in scheduling prayers at Bush events. Former Bush religious outreach liaison Bill Wictherman, who I quoted in my story, said that doing so would have caused a major flap: "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."
Other White House aides, meanwhile, noted that Bush started cabinet meetings with a prayer, with a different cabinet secretary offering one each time. "There was always a prayer before the cabinet meetings, and we would take turns," says Brian Montgomery, who ran the Office of Cabinet Affairs for Bush. "I remember [chief of staff] Josh Bolten doing part of his in Hebrew, and we all took note of it. The prayers were always pretty good. I was told it was tradition, but I can't be sure how far that goes back."
The Clinton White House avoided scheduling public invocations, despite Clinton's ease with quoting the Bible. "I don't have any remembrance of that happening other than at something like a prayer service," says Maureen Shea, Clinton's religious outreach liaison.
Kim Coryat, archives technician at Clinton Presidential Library, seconds that recollection: "I cannot remember seeing the transcript of an invocation at any nonreligious function or gathering."
President George H.W. Bush's events sometimes began with invocations, as did those for President Reagan. "I did see in the correspondence files where some writers were making themselves available for invocations for future trips, so at least it was understood that he did have them," says Lisa Jones, archivist at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Not so for President Jimmy Carter, the first modern evangelical president, who talked more openly of his personal faith than presidents and White House aspirants did at the time. "Despite his openness in interviews and his writings concerning his personal religious feelings, President Carter was very careful in his official speeches and meetings to avoid any charges of publicizing or evangelizing religion," says Albert Nason, archivist at the Jimmy Carter Library.
"For instance, he declined invitations from the Southern Baptist Convention to speak at their annual conference during his four presidential years, sending them only a tape of greeting and well wishes," Nason explained. "For this reason, except for speaking before a group such as the congregation of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where an invocation would be expected, I doubt if any invoking prayer occurred on occasions where Carter spoke, such as an otherwise secular event. Certainly it would not be a common occurrence."