The president who swept to victory by mobilizing his conservative Christian base used his inauguration on Thursday to signal that his administration is well aware that when it comes to religion, the US is both diverse and divided.
The tone was set in the opening invocation by the Reverend Luis Leon, an Episcopalian whose church, the landmark St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square, right across the street from the White House, favors blessing gay unions. Leon, a Cuban-American, thanked God for fashioning one nation out of "a multitude of peoples of many ethnic, religious and language backgrounds."
In his own speech, President Bush who is a Methodist, himself made a reference to religious pluralism with his assertion that the nation is sustained "by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people."
The phrase encompasses Jews, Christians and Muslims by alluding to the Ten Commandments, the preaching of Jesus and Islamic scripture.
The Reverend Max Stackhouse, professor of theology and public life at Princeton Theological Seminary, said of Bush's speech, "It's a little echo of the remark by President Eisenhower when he said, `our nation is founded on faith, and I don't care which faith it is.'"
President Bush's first inauguration in 2001 had sparked accusations of religious sectarianism when both clergymen who blessed the event prayed in the name of Jesus.
This time, the president chose Leon to replace one of those clergymen, the Reverend Franklin Graham (who had been filling in 2001 for his father, the Reverend Billy Graham, who was then ill).
The other clergyman from the president's first inauguration appeared once more, the Reverend Kirbyjon Caldwell, an African American pastor in Houston and pastor of what is said to be the nation's largest United Methodist church.
He is a friend and spiritual advisor to the president from his days as governor of Texas and an early supporter of his "faith-based initiative" to give religious groups more of a role in the delivery of social services.
Caldwell closed his benediction on Thursday by saying, "Respecting persons of all faiths, I humbly submit this prayer in the name of Jesus."
Edith Blumhofer, a professor of history and director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College, in Wheaton, Illinois -- an evangelical institution -- said it was the second time she had heard Caldwell precede a prayer with a reference to his respect for people of all faiths, and added, "I think that's probably an attempt to address the objections."
In his choice of pastors, Bush chose an African American and a Latino, constituencies the Republican Party is courting. Leon came to Miami in 1961 at age 11 in one of the "Peter Pan flights" that brought Cuban children to the US and left their parents behind. President Bush attends services at his church.
Leon said in an interview this week that he wanted to "offer a broad prayer as inclusive as I can make it."
He called the inauguration a celebration of the American character, adding, "Part of that American character is the breadth of our understanding of religious freedom, so it's probably a good time to honor that," he said.
The choice of clergy in the Bush inaugurals has actually been less inclusive than even those held 40 years ago, Blumhofer said. The Nixon and Eisenhower inaugurals had featured a "parade of faiths," she said, with prayers from Protestant, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Jewish clergy, and a performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.