Trump’s Inaugural Address Gets an “F” in American Civil Religion

The view from the middle of 5th Avenue at 47th in NYC, January 21, 2017.

Donald Trump’s inaugural address wasn’t merely a declaration of a new era of national self-interest and a rebuke of American engagement in global affairs, it was also a rejection of America’s civil religion.

Eschewing the moral responsibilities associated, since Washington, with presidential invocations of the deity, Trump further ignored the American belief that law, especially the Constitution, likewise represents an authority that transcends the human.

Certainly, his decision not to reiterate the necessity of sacrifice for American liberty is in keeping with his wider vision of the country’s “glorious destiny” as characterized by “winning” and a return to nostalgic greatness devoid of struggle. In place of sacrifice for the common good, Trump emphasized “total allegiance to the United States of America” while failing to offer particular examples of American rights and values.

In his now-classic essay, “Civil Religion in America,” Robert Bellah identified a tradition in American national discourse that exists “alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from” other modes of religious commitment.  Civil religion plays an essential role in national identity and, more importantly, helps citizens negotiate the problematic relation of sovereignty to power, citizens to the state, that characterizes American politics.

Sovereignty, in American politics, is rooted in the people. Rather than resting in a monarch, American popular sovereignty is a matter of negotiation and compromise, a matter of relation. Not only does such popular sovereignty not look much like the old-school, European variety—which gets shorthanded as “tyranny” in our founding documents—it is also an ideal that, in application, has some hitches. Our democratic system reveals itself, often, to be less than perfectly democratic—consider the power of executive orders by the president, the nonalignment of electoral college and popular vote counts, or the sovereign decision-making ability of the (unelected, unaccountable to popular opinion) Supreme Court.

While the American conception of sovereignty offers a promise of power, the power to choose, to change, much power nonetheless resides in the institutions of the state—government, local and federal as well as courts and those forces of law enforcement vested with the power to bring violence to bear in both the protection and disciplining of the so-called sovereign populace. Frustrations over such contradictions lead to apathy about the democratic process but also rituals of reaffirmation and recommitment, rituals Bellah pointed to as pillars of American civil religion.

Foremost among these, for Bellah, was the inauguration of a new president, an occasion for Americans to be reassured that our system works—power is transferred peacefully, according to the rule of law—and to be reunited in remembrance of our shared values, common narratives of the past, and understanding of our own sovereignty in the face of—indeed, from the mouth of—the incoming leader of our government.

Inauguration is that leader’s solemn oath to accept and uphold the Constitution, sworn before the entire American people but also before God.  This invocation of deity, while vague enough in articulation to fit with multiple religious traditions, is essential, Bellah says, because the theological appeal to a higher authority than the human provides “a grounding for the rights of man that makes any form of political absolutism illegitimate” while also providing “a transcendent goal for the political process.” This very public theological turn negotiates the problem of American sovereignty and power. Bellah writes:

Though the will of the people as expressed in the majority vote is carefully institutionalized as the operative source of political authority, it is deprived of an ultimate significance. The will of the people is not itself the criterion of right and wrong. 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.

While Bellah does not pursue it, law—the Constitution in particular, set in relation to the Declaration of Independence and assorted statements from the founders—stands as a parallel source of transcendent power and authority. America’s civil religion may be one of trust in a nondenominational God, but it’s also explicitly faith in law, in the Constitution as a ultimate check and balance on any elected humans. We take recourse in insisting that we are a nation of laws, not individuals, a move that grounds human rights, eschews political absolutism, and provides a transcendent goal for politics (justice) just as surely as the theology Bellah focused on.

Finally, Bellah described the rhetoric of “death, sacrifice, and rebirth” as central to American civil religion.  Deaths in the service of our country have been sacralized.  We see the loss of soldiers and slain leaders as martyrdom for the continued liberty of others, see our own freedom as predicated on the deaths of fellow citizens before us.

Trump’s inaugural address departed from each of these three aspects of American civil religion. While Trump mentioned the deity five times—he quoted Psalm 133:1 on the goodness of God’s people living in unity, he declared that God protected America, he stated that all American children were given life by the same “almighty Creator,” and in closing he invoked God’s blessing on his audience and on the nation—only the line from Psalms associated God with moral judgment, and even that is a bit tenuous.

A God who celebrates the unity of his followers is not the God of American civil religion, holding humans to account, ethically invested in the American political experiment. Tweaking the most famous image from John Winthrop’s 1639 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity,” the shining city on the hill, Trump stripped away the moral element. Trump’s America will shine not as an exemplar of righteous conduct but as an example of “winning” business practices and national self-interest.

Throughout his campaign, Trump used three rhetorical approaches: plain spoken statements which are later beclouded by claims that he was only joking, statements delineating a nostalgic struggle to reclaim American pride and safety and greatness from various coded or explicit threats, and vague declarations that derive meaning from what is concealed or left unsaid.

Conspicuously absent in his inaugural address was any mention of the Constitution, and his only mention of law was in the context of “military and law enforcement”  Dahlia Lithwick analyzed this at Slate, arguing that

The law is immaterial to Trump, as he demonstrated so often during his campaign. In his view, the law exists almost exclusively to punish political opponents (“lock her up”) and to defang critics (“we’re going to open up the libel laws”). It exists to strip citizenship from protesters, to punish immigrants, and to bless extra-constitutional actions ranging from torture to religious registries. Judges are either on his side or they are illegitimate.

This worldview—divided between winners and losers, to use two words popular with our new president—has, it seems, little use for sacrifice.  Trump, in his speech, evoked not the ultimate sacrifice of those who give their lives for their country but, instead, in an odd image, the blood that unifies patriots.

Never mind that traitors, tyrants, and terrorists all bleed red, too, Trump’s description of what “our soldiers will never forget” departs from the script of American civil religion most strongly in that it references only bleeding, remembered by those who survived.  The man who belittled John McCain’s war heroism here avoids mention of those killed in action.

In a speech dominated by dreadful, post-apocalyptic imagery— “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones,” “American carnage”—this omission is all the more noticeable.  But Trump’s purpose in this speech was to outline his vision of American nationalism, a nationalism not of sacrifice for transcendent liberties nor responsibility to transcendent value. Indeed, his nationalism may well represent a new American civil religion—an idolatry of empty proclamations reliant on divisions within the American people.

In an inaugural address decrying “empty talk,” Trump eschewed detailed articulation of American values for vague proclamations of a new nationalist ethos. Thus, we are offered Orwellian statements like “We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny” and that “through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other” but when we are told that children across the country hold, in their hearts, “the same dreams,” we are not told what these dreams are.

Likewise, no details were given as to what “glorious freedoms” America offers, not even a rote gloss of such freedoms—think “liberty, equality, and justice for all,” for example. These are familiar words, but usefully so—their repetition has a creedal function, the American people hearing and repeating for themselves the values espoused by our founders, framed at the same time as gifts and responsibilities from our “almighty Creator,” to be instantiated in their fullness through fealty to and engagement with the law.

Of course, in lieu of allegiance to the Constitution, Trump calls us to “total allegiance to the United States of America,” a nationalism of slogans—“America First”—unanswerable to any higher authority, whether law or God, the sacrifice of previous generations (be they veterans like John McCain or Civil Rights activists like John Lewis).

Division dominated over union in Trump’s description of America, but the speech was, ultimately, a sales pitch for a new American nationalism. The man whose rise to political power hinged upon his role as authoritarian boss on a business-themed reality show brought that persona to the presidential inauguration. As he concluded, calling for God to bless the nation, the words sounded more like a command than a plea.