At the first inauguration of George W. Bush as president, the Rev. Franklin Graham raised eyebrows by using an edgy word in his prayer.
"May this be the beginning of a new dawn for America as we humble ourselves before you and acknowledge you alone as our Lord, our Savior and our Redeemer," said Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham.
Four years later, the word showed up again.
"Now, unto You, O God, the One who always has been and always will be, the one King of kings and the true power broker, we glorify and honor You," said the Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. "Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."
Scholars who keep watch over the rites of American civil religion took note of the firestorms caused by these prayers. Clearly, it was becoming dangerous to use the J-word — the name of Jesus — in the public square.
But it's old hat for Republicans to use explicit God-talk. This year, Sen. Barack Obama and his team went out of their way to invite progressive and even mainstream evangelicals to the Democratic National Convention — including taking a turn on the podium.
Donald Miller, author of the spiritual memoir "Blue Like Jazz," ended his prayer with a call for unity within diversity, but also found a way to say "Jesus" without causing trouble.
"God, we know that you are good. Thank you for blessing us in so many ways as Americans," Miller said. "I make these requests in the name of your son, Jesus, who gave his own life against the forces of injustice. ... Amen."
The key was that Miller stressed the word "I," making sure that his listeners knew he was claiming this was his own prayer — not asking them to share his embrace of the second part of the Trinity.
When it comes to church-state strategy, the groundbreaking prayer was offered by the Rev. Joel Hunter of the giant Northland Church near Orlando, Fla. — especially since his benediction ended the rally that included Obama's acceptance speech.
A self-identified "pro-life Republican," the preacher offered a conventional prayer with appeals on behalf of infants, children, the poor, the persecuted and the enslaved, as well as for peace and for the environment. At the end, Hunter interjected a unique "closing instruction."
"I want this to be a participatory prayer. And so therefore, because we are in a country that is still welcoming all faiths, I would like all of us to close this prayer in the way your faith tradition would close your prayer. So on the count of three, I want all of you to end this prayer, your prayer, the way you usually end prayer. You ready? One, two, three."
Hunter, on his own behalf, spoke into the microphone: "In Jesus' name, Amen." Meanwhile, 80,000 or so other people were free to name their own God or gods.
The pastor later stressed that the goal was to ensure that participants did not believe they were being asked to accept a prayer that forced them to "compromise their core beliefs."
"I did not ask people to pray to another god; I asked them to finish a prayer according to their faith tradition," Hunter argued on his church's Web site. "This may be a small point linguistically, but it is a huge point theologically."