For President Obama, a Somber, Inclusive Inaugural Prayer Service

Rev. Sharon Watkins became the first woman to deliver an inaugural prayer sermon.


President Barack Obama began his first full day on the job at the National Cathedral's inaugural prayer service. But although the service is part of a presidential tradition that dates back to George Washington, it had the imprint of Obama, particularly in its emphasis on inclusiveness and community.

The president and first lady had been up late the night before, dancing through their 10 inaugural balls. Aside from the first lady's choice of flats, however, there were few signs that the day had taken a toll on the couple as they sat alongside Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton in the front row.

Rev. Sharon Watkins, president and general minister of Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada, opened her sermon on a note of optimism.

"With your inauguration, Mr. President, the flame of America's promise burns just a little brighter for every child in this land," she said. The phrase was met with applause.

The service marked the first time that a woman was chosen to deliver the sermon at the inaugural prayer service.

Twenty clergy members participated in the service, including representatives from the Islamic Society of North America, the Hindu Temple Society of North America, and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Prayers were based on the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer but had been retouched to draw on George Washington's 1789 prayer service and Abraham Lincoln's 1865 inaugural address.

In her sermon, Watkins drew on words from an array of thinkers, including Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., the Cherokee Indians, and even the president himself. She particularly emphasized the need to draw on American values, like loving one's neighbor, in the face of crises.

"Our individual well-being depends on a world in which liberty and justice prevail," Watkins said. "This is the biblical way. It is also the American way."

During those words, Obama looked intent, resting his finger against his chin in apparent thoughtfulness. (The same signature gesture also appeared when Watkins warned the new president and vice president against being drawn "away from your ethical center" by their positions of power).

Although much of the tone of the service was somber, there were moments of levity. Addressing the president as she opened her sermon, Watkins said, "Mr. President—now that kind of has a ring to it, doesn't it?" The cathedral's crowd of 3,200—all invited guests, including congressmen, cabinet members, dignitaries, and Supreme Court justices—rang with applause.

At another point, the District-based Children of the Gospel Choir performed "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

Joined by the Bidens and Clintons, Obama sang along with them. As they finished the last verse, a broad grin spread across his face.