God in the Inauguration: JFK, Bush, and Obama

Much of the discussion surrounding religion and the inauguration of President Barack Obama has focused on the controversial invitation to Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. While Warren’s selection and his prayer raise a number of interesting and difficult questions about the relation between religion and politics, there are other religious aspects and implications of the inaugural ceremony that have yet to receive sufficient attention. Specifically, we would do well to pay attention to the religious dimension of the president’s inaugural address itself.

A helpful place to begin is with sociologist Robert Bellah’s classic essay “Civil Religion in America.” First published in 1967, “Civil Religion” contended that “there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America” which lends a dimension of transcendence to public life. By means of its narratives, rituals, and symbols, patriotism becomes a sacred duty, and in times of crisis, it helps to mobilize the citizenry to support government policies. According to Bellah, “the civil religion at its best is a genuine apprehension of universal and transcendent religious reality as seen in or, one could almost say, as revealed through the experience of the American people.”

This civil religion can be observed on many occasions: Fourth of July celebrations and Thanksgiving Day, Veterans Day parades and Memorial Day services, in the singing of the National Anthem at sporting events and in the daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance in American classrooms.

One of the most important and high-profile of such ceremonies is a presidential inauguration. “It reaffirms, among other things,” Bellah wrote, “the religious legitimation of the highest political authority.” That is, the rhetorical and symbolic power of religion is used to legitimize the authority of the new president, chief executive of the state. The inauguration can be understood in the context of American civil religion and its articulation.

Presidential inaugurations are as much about emphasizing continuity as transition, a point underscored by the presence of former presidents and vice presidents, members of the Senate and Supreme Court Justices and so forth. The ceremonial aspects of the event, its pomp and ritual, the oath of office and the use of a Bible, the invocations and benedictions by religious leaders, perform the “priestly” function of providing a degree of religious sanctity and dignity to the political ritual. (The inclusion of religious leaders representing particular religious traditions illuminates the tensions between traditional and civil religion.)

Yet, arguably the most important and lasting aspect of the occasion is the inaugural address. Presidents (and their speechwriters) assume the role of amateur theologians for the address, which proclaims their vision of the American civil religion and provides an interpretation of and response to the situation of the day. It may therefore be read as the new (or newly reelected) president’s sermon to the nation, presenting his understanding of the American creed, setting the tone for his administration and its policies, and attempting to mobilize the audience to support his proposals and his vision.

Since Barack Obama is one of the most religiously voluble and theologically sophisticated of modern American politicians, I was curious to see whether and how he would use the language of civil religion.

JFK: The Spirit of Protestant Activism

It is interesting that Bellah began his description of the “religious dimension” of the American political experience with an analysis of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address of January 20, 1961, which he regarded as expressing the fundamental ideas of the American civil religion.

Bellah acknowledged that Kennedy’s speech, though framed by three references to “God,” did not talk about any religion in particular; he made no mention, say, of Moses, Jesus, or of his own Roman Catholic affiliation. Nevertheless, he argued that the speech’s references to the deity ought not be regarded as having “only a ceremonial significance,” but are “often indicative of deep-seated values and commitments that are not made explicit in the course of everyday life.” They represent an appeal to “America’s God,” predicated on but also transcending sectarian Protestant Christianity, which allowed for a kind of national unity in spite of the diversity of sects in America.

Bellah showed that Kennedy’s first two references to the deity point to God as the ultimate source and judge of political authority. His first mention of God referred to the presidential oath of office he had just taken: “For I have sworn before you and Almighty God the same solemn oath our forebears prescribed nearly a century and three quarters ago.” (Note that the oath mandated by the Constitution does not mention God, though it has become traditional to conclude with the phrase “So help me God.”) The oath to uphold the Constitution is made to the people and to God; the president is accountable to both parties. The implication of this is that the will of the people is completely sovereign; as Bellah wrote, “There is a higher criterion in terms of which this will can be judged; it is possible that the people may be wrong. The president’s obligation extends to the higher criterion.” Thus, the will of the people is, in Bellah’s words, “deprived of an ultimate significance.” The nation exists under the judgment of God.

The second reference to God reinforces this idea. Kennedy reminded his audience of their “revolutionary beliefs… that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” The ultimate ground of political authority is therefore neither the state, nor the people, but God, and “the rights of man” are prior to and inalienable by any government.

Kennedy’s address is perhaps best remembered for its famous call to service: “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” The closing paragraphs turn to what Bellah regards as the “transcendent goal for the political process,” a declaration of the American obligation to carry out God’s will on earth: “Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” Bellah suggested that we regard these words as articulating “a divinely ordained mission,” “the obligation to carry out God’s will on Earth. This was the animating spirit of those who founded America”; in the first Catholic president’s address was the spirit of Protestant activism.

Bush: A Militant “New Israel”

At the end of his essay, Bellah wondered whether the American civil religion would survive the “third time of crisis,” “the problem of responsible action in a revolutionary world.” Others have also expressed skepticism that a tradition based on Judeo-Christian tropes could survive in an increasingly diverse nation.

Yet, the elements of the civil religion that Bellah observed in Kennedy’s address—the divine foundation of the democratic political order, the notion of a “transcendent goal for the political process,” and the “very activist and noncontemplative conception of the fundamental religious obligation”—are found, in a higher pitch, in George W. Bush’s second inaugural address, a powerful declaration in the “Global War on Terror.”

Like Kennedy, Bush acknowledged the divine source of rights. “Every man and woman on this earth,” he proclaimed, “has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and Earth.” Now, this is not the language of the Declaration of Independence, which states that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Bush linked these rights, dignity and value to Scripture, invoking the biblical assertion that human beings are created in “the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:27, 5:1). He thereby forged a much stronger association between “Judeo-Christian” revelation and American notions of freedom than the Lockean-inspired Declaration of Independence—which claims “these truths to be self-evident.”

One should also recall that later on in the speech, Bush acknowledged the religious diversity of America, stating that the “edifice of character is built in families, supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our national life by the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Qu’ran, and the varied faiths of our people.” The point of this passage was not only to recognize the multiplicity of faiths in America but also to state that such religious beliefs help mold individual character, and thus support the “American ideal of freedom.” In this way, diverse religious beliefs all work toward the national goal.

Yet, Bush’s appeal here to other religions is deceptive. A consideration of other speeches delivered by Bush show them to be subtly laced with Christian language. Scholars such as Bruce Lincoln have contended that these speeches were specifically coded with theological language which would appeal to the ears of Bush’s evangelical audience and demonstrate a much tighter connection between Bush’s understanding of Christianity and American policy and mission.

Bush’s claim about the divinely granted nature of rights yields “the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.” The crux of Bush’s speech is the connection between these beliefs and America’s national security interests: “Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation’s security, and the calling of our time.” “Advancing these ideas” thereby shapes America’s mission: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in the world.” And, later on: “We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” The future of American freedom is dependent on America’s liberation of the world. Here, the classic “New Israel” trope takes on a militant dimension.

In this speech (as in many others during his tenure), Bush articulated his vision of a Manichean world—freedom versus slavery, liberty versus tyranny, good versus evil—a vision of which has shaped the Bush administration’s policies and general attitude toward foreign affairs.

Peggy Noonan complained in the Wall Street Journal that Bush’s speech was “God-drenched,” but a close reading reveals that it was actually a paean to Bush’s notion of “liberty” and “freedom” (the terms are used interchangeably by Bush). The word “God” and appellations for God (e.g., “Maker of Heaven and Earth” and “Author of Liberty”) are mentioned five times in the speech, “freedom” twenty-seven times, and “liberty” fifteen times. “There is only one force of history that can break the reign of hatred and resentment, and expose the pretensions of tyrants, and reward the hopes of the decent and tolerant,” Bush said, “and that is the force of human freedom.” Despite the biblical language that Bush exploits throughout the speech, this is not orthodox Christian doctrine. Bush’s God is the God of freedom, “the Author of Liberty,” and America is charged with the messianic task of vanquishing tyranny and bringing about freedom around the globe. The inexorable, providential march of freedom is propelled by American power and influence. In short, Bush’s address could be read as providing religious sanction for the neo-conservative project.

This theological support of American power is perhaps most forcefully articulated in the penultimate paragraph of the address, where God, liberty, and American activism all seem to fold into one another:

We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom. Not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability; it is human choices that move events. Not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation; God moves and chooses as He wills. We have confidence because freedom is the permanent hope of mankind, the hunger in dark places, the longing of the soul. When our Founders declared a new order of the ages; when soldiers died in wave upon wave for a union based on liberty; when citizens marched in peaceful outrage under the banner “Freedom Now”—they were acting on an ancient hope that is meant to be fulfilled. History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.

In this passage, even as he demurs from the notion of “American chosenness,” Bush articulates his own confidence that America acts as an agent of God (or liberty), called upon to spread freedom to all ends of the earth—by military might if necessary. Yet, despite the lofty rhetoric one senses what Bellah regarded as “the dangers of distortion” in Bush’s use of the tradition. When one considers how Bush conducted his wars of freedom—his doctrine of preemptive war, his disregard of the Geneva Convention and the rule of law, the sanction of “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation techniques,” the abuses of Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay, and so forth—Bellah’s fears seem to be justified.

Obama: Toward Bellah’s “Vital International Symbolism”?

President Barack Obama’s inaugural address struck a much different tone. While Bush celebrated the American ideal of freedom and the nation’s mission to expand it throughout the world, Obama spoke soberly of a nation in crisis. Though he didn’t use the word, one may hear in Obama’s words an indictment of America’s recent sins and a call for national revival.

Obama began with an admission of the current crisis. Unlike FDR, who in his first inaugural address stated that difficulties of the time “concern… only material things,” the difficulties Obama described were broader and deeper: the nation at war, its economy in shambles, the grave threat to the environment, the failure of American education, and the high cost of health care. But Obama stressed that America also faces a crisis of values and of confidence, brought about by a pettiness in our politics, feckless greed on the part of a few, but also “a collective failure to make hard choices.”

Yet this speech was no jeremiad, but rather a clarion call to a “new era of responsibility.” From his description of the crisis of the moment, Obama pointed out that America has weathered crises in the past “because we, the people, have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebears and true to our founding documents.” It was time, he proclaimed, to make a decisive turn:

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation. But in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

Obama’s paraphrase of I Corinthians 13:11 (one of the most famous lines of Scripture) provides a warrant for his agenda to overcome the squabbles of the recent past and to forge a new politics based upon America’s “enduring spirit.” Like Kennedy and Bush before him, Obama introduced the classic creed of American civil religion, the connection between God and American “liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.” But he did so with an interesting and important shift. Obama abstained from the language of divinely-endowed “rights,” and spoke instead of the “God-given promise,” which is a “precious gift” and “noble idea.” Rights are, of course, endowed, inherent in the creature; promises are to be fulfilled. This curious alteration cohered with the speech’s emphasis on duty, responsibility and “the spirit of service.” It was perhaps also a subtle reminder of the experience of those, in America and elsewhere, to whom liberty and equality were a hoped-for horizon rather than a reality.

But Obama’s most powerful statement on religion occurred in the midst of his section on foreign policy, immediately following his challenge to would-be terrorists. It was a note on the nature of American diversity:

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

There is much going on in this paragraph, which is directed both to the American audience and to the world. First, it is a clear acknowledgment and endorsement of a religious—but increasingly religiously diverse—nation. It is noteworthy that Muslims are mentioned second after Christians, foreshadowing Obama’s subsequent outreach to the Muslim world in the following paragraph. Second, the passage is noteworthy for Obama’s inclusion of “non-believers,” a long ignored minority in America’s “patchwork heritage.” Third, while sometimes leading to division and violence, Obama affirmed that through conflict the nation has indeed become more united; in prophetic language, he proclaimed that this American experience can serve as a model for the passing of “old hatreds” and the illumination of “our common humanity,” culminating in the eschatological hope of “a new era of peace.”

Many commentators have written of the communitarian chord Obama struck throughout his address. Ideals that are old and true, “honesty and hard work, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism,” were lauded as “the quiet force of progress throughout our history.” “This is the price and the promise of citizenship,” Obama proclaimed. “This is the source of our confidence—the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

The closing lines of Obama’s address reinforce the relationship of duty to citizenship calling upon today’s American citizens to identify with the generation of the founders, to find inspiration in their struggles and sacrifices, and to see it as a model for their endeavors. Quoting Thomas Paine’s words that General Washington had read to his troops: “Let it be told to the future world… that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive… that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Obama concluded:

With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

These words bind hope to virtue, freedom to duty, the present generation to past and future ones, and serve to brace the citizenry for the difficulties that lie ahead. The times require steely-eyed determination, yet there is the consolation that the people are not alone, but that their “hope and virtue” is secured by the sure knowledge of “God’s grace” being upon them.

It is clear, I think, that President Obama’s inaugural address contains a muted expression of the American civil religion that Robert Bellah first recognized in Kennedy’s speech of 1961. The reference to God as the transcendent source of values, the activist faith, the trust in God’s providence and grace, notions of sacrifice and rebirth, the appeal to sacred events and heroes of the past (recall, too, Obama’s use of Lincoln’s Bible during the swearing-in ceremony), are all enduring aspects of this tradition, and Obama placed special emphasis on the civil republican dimension.

Yet, the God that Obama appeals to feels more remote, less directly involved in history than in earlier inaugural addresses. Remarkable, too, is Obama’s stress on the nation’s shortcomings, his mention of religious traditions beyond the so-called “Judeo-Christian” faiths, his outreach to Muslims and inclusion of non-believers. The latter represents a real and significant innovation, an attempt to balance the rhetoric of civil religion with the recognition of the reality, the intractability (and also the desirability) of genuine religious (and irreligious) diversity. Indeed, as Mark Silk argues in an upcoming issue of Religion in the News, Obama—a perfect representative of America’s “patchwork heritage”—may indeed be pushing toward the kind of “vital international symbolism” in our civil religious discourse that Bellah once suggested would result from “a successful negotiation of this third time of trial.”

It is, of course, far to early to tell whether President Obama will succeed in mobilizing the American people to face the current crisis with “hope and virtue,” whether his presidency will indeed inaugurate a new era of responsibility and remake and revitalize the tradition of civil religion in America. Nonetheless, one suspects that long after Pastor Warren’s invocation is forgotten, Americans will continue look to the new president’s words for inspiration and fortitude.