President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrived at Washington's National Cathedral this morning for a prayer service that traces its origins to the inauguration of President George Washington.
Obama carries on that tradition today with a notably diverse group of religious leaders. The invitation-only service includes nearly two dozen clergy who represent, in their views and background, the theme of inclusion that Obama stressed in his campaign and in his inaugural address.
The sermon will be delivered by Rev. Sharon Watkins, president of the Disciples of Christ in North America, the first woman to play such a role in the inaugural religious ceremony.
The other clergy will present separate readings and prayers. They include Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America; Uma Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, and Rabbi David Saperstein, executive director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell, a well known African American pastor from Houston picked by former President George W. Bush to lead his inaugural prayer service four years ago will be participating as well.
Archbishop Demetrios, prelate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, has a role, as does Rev. Cynthia Hale, an African American pastor of Ray of Hope Church in Decatur, Ga., which grew under her leadership from four members to 7,500.
While the theme of religious diversity is notable today, the theme also was a pronounced part of the Bush inaugurals in 2001 and 2005.
The national prayer service traces its origins to a congressional proclamation delivered three days before George Washington took the oath of office in New York City.
It directed that the president, vice president and members of Congress "proceed to St. Pau'ls Chapel to hear divine service."
During the Civil War, the services became non-denominational and took place in the Capitol.
In 1985, then-President Ronald Reagan moved the service to the National Cathedral in Washington, a gothic giant set on a hilltop in Northwest Washington that serves as an ecumenical religious center. President Bill Clinton broke the new tradition of using the cathedral for both of his inaugurals, directing that the services be held at a historic black church in downtown Washington, Metropolitan AME.