Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers, will deliver the invocation at President Barack Obama‘s second public inauguration on Jan. 21, event organizers announced Tuesday. Ms. Evers-Williams, 79, will reportedly be the first woman and non-clergy member to deliver one of the most public prayers in America’s political history.
“I am humbled to have been asked to deliver the invocation for the 57th inauguration of the President of the United States — especially in light of this historical time in America when we will celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement,” Evers-Williams said in a statement released by the Presidential Inauguration Committee.
“It is indeed an exhilarating experience to have the distinct honor of representing that era,” she added.
President Obama will be officially sworn in to his second term in office on Jan. 20 in a private ceremony, and the public ceremony including the invocation and benediction will take place on Jan. 21, on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
Evers-Williams’ prayer will come at the beginning of the Jan. 21 inauguration ceremony, while evangelical pastor Louie Giglio, founder of the Passion movement, which teaches students about human trafficking, will deliver the benediction.
The contrasting choice of speakers are typical of a president who has walked a sometimes complicated path when it comes to religion — working to be inclusive to the point that critics at times have questioned his faith. In a statement released by the inaugural committee, the president said the careers of Evers-Williams and Giglio “reflect the ideals that the Vice President and I continue to pursue for all Americans – justice, equality and opportunity.”
The invocation comes at the start of the inaugural ceremony, and the benediction comes at the end. An inaugural official said Giglio was picked for the benediction in part because of his work raising awareness about modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Those were core issues at his most recent conference, Passion 2013, attended by more than 60,000 mostly young evangelicals in Atlanta.
While the Constitution does not mandate that anyone in particular should administer the oath, the oath is typically administered by the Chief Justice, but sometimes by another federal or state judge. The Constitutional language gives the option to “affirm” instead of “swear”. While the reasons for this are not documented, it may relate to certain Christians, including Quakers, who apply this scripture literally: “But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation” (James 5:12, KJV)Franklin Pierce was the only president known to use the word “affirm” rather than “swear.” Herbert Hoover is often listed to have used “affirm” as well, owing to his being a Quaker, but a newsreel taken of the ceremony indicates that the words used were “solemnly swear.” Richard Nixon, who was also a Quaker, also swore, rather than affirm.
It is uncertain how many Presidents used a Bible or added the words “So help me God” at the end of the oath, or in their acceptance of the oath, as neither is required by law; unlike many other federal oaths which do include the phrase “So help me God.. There is currently debate as to whether or not George Washington, the first president, added the phrase to his acceptance of the oath. All contemporary sources fail to mention Washington as adding a religious codicil to his acceptance.
Events like the President’s inauguration tend to be highly ecumenical.
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