It was Franklin Delano Roosevelt who, at his second inaugural on January 20, 1937, began the practice of having prayers at the inauguration ceremony. Prior to that, the only manifestation of religion in the ceremony was the habitual use of a Bible for the swearing in—accompanied by the traditional (but not constitutionally mandated) phrase, “so help me God.” Often the new president would kiss the Bible. In 1929, Herbert Hoover did. In 1937, Roosevelt didn’t.
Otherwise, the only prayer associated with the inauguration was one given in the Senate chamber by the Senate chaplain after the outgoing vice president administered the oath of office to his successor. In 1937, Roosevelt decided to have the vice presidential oath take place as part of the main event, and presumably not to deprive the Senate chaplain of his prerogative, decided to let the current holder of that position, the Episcopal priest ZeBarney T. Phillips, give an invocation.
More interestingly, from a political as well as a civil religious standpoint, Roosevelt decided to have Msgr. John A. Ryan give the benediction. (If you have an invocation, you’ve got to have a benediction.)
Ryan, the foremost proponent of social welfare policies in the American Catholic Church, was not only so strong a supporter of Roosevelt’s policies that he became known as “The Right Reverend New Dealer,” but took up cudgels against Father Charles Coughlin, the notorious Detroit priest whose increasingly anti-Roosevelt, anti-New Deal, and anti-Semitic rants were broadcast coast-to-coast on CBS radio.
Indeed, during the 1936 presidential campaign, Ryan went on NBC to attack Coughlin for “ugly, cowardly and flagrant calumnies” for accusing FDR of being “anti-God” and a Communist–a charge Republicans were also making against the New Deal generally. The October 7 address made the New York Times front page, where it was designated “the first major extended attack upon the radio priest’s position in the campaign by another Catholic priest in a political speech.”
Under the circumstances, it was fitting that Ryan be given the honor of praying at the inaugural. Arguably, FDR instituted it precisely to give Ryan the honor. And thereby to signal that Roman Catholicism was now to be an equal partner at national ceremonious occasions. And, perhaps above all, to make it clear that FDR himself was not anti-God and the New Deal not communistic.