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At The National Prayer Service, A Plea To Avoid 'Simplistic Calls For Unity'

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden attended the virtual presidential inaugural prayer service from the State Dining Room of the White House.
Al Drago
Bloomberg via Getty Images
President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden attended the virtual presidential inaugural prayer service from the State Dining Room of the White House.

Gone were the conservative evangelical leaders who had been invited in the past. No Catholic bishops or priests took part.

This year's National Prayer Service, a longstanding inauguration tradition to welcome an incoming presidential administration, instead featured two transgender faith leaders, the president of the Navajo Nation, and a host of speakers with urgent calls for national transformation.

Previous inauguration prayer services have been largely non-political affairs, with faith leaders asking for divine blessing of the nation's new leaders. But this year's service, following four years of Donald Trump's divisive leadership and his incitement of a mob insurrection, had an unusually sharp tone.

"Help us today to imagine a new America," said Rabbi Sharon Brous from the IKAR Jewish congregation in Los Angeles, "A new America that abolishes the heresy of white supremacy and enlists all of us in dismantling racism and lifting up a theology of radical equality."

In his homily, the Rev. William Barber II cited Isaiah 58, where the prophet calls on his people to "loose the bands of wickedness, ... let the oppressed go free," and become "the repairer of the breach." Barber is a national co-chair of the Poor Peoples Campaign.

"The breach is when we say, 'One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,' with our lips while we see the rich and the poor living in two different Americas," Barber said, speaking thunderously from his pulpit at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C.. He challenged those who argue that this is a time to avoid hard truths and put aside the issues that divide the nation.

"The only way to establish domestic tranquility is to establish justice," Barber said. "Pretending that we can address the nation's wounds with simplistic calls for unity, that is not how we can close the breach. The breach is telling lies when we need truth, greed when we need compassion."

The speakers were chosen jointly by the Biden-Harris inaugural committee and the clergy at the National Cathedral, which has traditionally hosted these prayer services. This year it was an online production. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden watched the service on television from the White House, joined by Vice President Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff.

The lineup of speakers was especially inclusive. For the first time, two transgender faith leaders took part, along with other clergy supportive of LGBTQ rights. Two Muslims offered prayers, along with Hindu and Sikh leaders. The president of the Navajo Nation, Jonathan Nez, said a prayer partly in his own Navajo language.

The only Catholic speakers at the service were two nuns, both known for their progressive views. Sister Norma Pimentel, an advocate for undocumented immigrants along the U.S.-Mexico border, recited the peace prayer by St. Francis of Assisi. Sister Carol Keehan, who lobbied tirelessly for the Affordable Care Act despite official opposition from the Catholic Church, also spoke.

While Pope Francis welcomed Biden's inauguration, saying he prayed that Biden "will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom," the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has been less welcoming.

Shortly after Biden's election, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops raised concerns about his support of abortion rights and same sex marriage and appointed a task force to consider what it means to have the second Catholic president in U.S. history holding positions that depart from official Catholic teaching.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.