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Faith Leaders Called For Divine Blessing Of New Administration On Inauguration Day

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A presidential transition unlike those of the past was welcomed today at a national prayer service with an especially sharp political message. A post-inauguration prayer service is a tradition. It dates back to the presidency of George Washington. But the faith leaders who offered prayers today for President Biden, Vice President Harris and their new administration were unusually outspoken, as NPR's Tom Gjelten explains.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: In recent decades, faith leaders from a range of religious traditions have gathered to call for divine blessing of each new presidential administration. That much this year was consistent with the prayer services of the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

AZHAR SUBEDAR: Dear Lord of the universe, by your grace, you select and, through your name, you guide. The elected officials of this nation recognize its greatness.

ALEXIA SALVATIERRA: Let us pray for those who, through any form of service, offer themselves in devotion to our nation.

OTIS MOSS III: Keep this nation under your care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing, unintelligible).

GJELTEN: Three of the more than two dozen who spoke today, Imam Azhar Subedar of the Islamic Association of Collin County in Texas, the Reverend Alexia Salvatierra from Fuller Theological Seminary and Pastor Otis Moss III from Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. These national prayer services have grown progressively more ecumenical. Muslim imams have joined rabbis and Christian ministers, later Hindu and Sikh leaders - this year, for the first time, a Native American leader, Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, offering up prayer, partly in his own Navajo language.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONATHAN NEZ: (Speaking non-English language) - Jesus Christ, amen.

GJELTEN: This year's service was virtual. The speakers were all online. President Biden and his family watched it on television from the White House. And whereas previous services mostly avoided controversy, today's had a more urgent tone. The service after Barack Obama's second inauguration featured some conservative-leaning evangelicals. None were included today. Prominent instead were speakers calling for social and economic justice. The Reverend William Barber, delivering the sermon, called for closing the breach between what is and how God wants things to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM BARBER: 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.

GJELTEN: Barber is the pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, N.C., and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign. He and other speakers were chosen by the Biden-Harris Inaugural Committee and the clergy of the National Cathedral, which hosts the prayer service. For the first time, two transgender faith leaders participated. But though Joe Biden is the first Catholic president in 60 years, no Catholic priest took part. The two Catholics who did participate were nuns known for their progressive advocacy. The hierarchy of the U.S. Catholic Church has criticized Biden over his support for abortion rights.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAECHULGI'S "CALM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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