PRESIDENT OBAMA’S INAUGURAL ADDRESS: THINKING CHRISTIANLY AND HISTORICALLY ABOUT THE RHETORIC

In my latest post I noted that one of the most important functions that inaugural addresses serve is to reinforce our sense of identity as a nation.  Presidential inaugurations are important public rituals, and presidents have regularly used their addresses as opportunities not only to make a case for their agenda but also to remind Americans of their defining principles.  (It is coincidental, I am sure, that these are invariably presented as mutually reinforcing.)  In sum, inaugural addresses are symbolically important public efforts to define what the United States stands for, and this means that we all have something at stake in the undertaking.  The president’s rhetoric matters.

As Christians called to “take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), we want to do our best to “think Christianly” (as the late Harry Blamires put it) about all such pronouncements.  As a Christian historian, I am also convinced that it will enhance our insight to bring a historical perspective to bear.  Here’s what I mean in this instance:

One of the most obvious questions that Christians will likely ask about President Obama’s inaugural address today concerns his use of religious rhetoric.  In defining our nation’s “founding principles” and the “journey” we must still complete in order to fulfill them, did the president pay proper tribute to the place of religious faith—to Christian faith, specifically?  This is a huge, and hugely complex, question, but here are just a couple of preliminary thoughts.

Four years ago the newly elected president angered many Christians with his declaration that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”  Pundits will be parsing the president’s rhetoric for weeks, but my initial impression is that today’s speech was not quite as pointed as Obama’s 2009 address in linking American identity with an amalgam of world religions (not to mention atheism as well).  Those who simply want to count terms will note that the president referred to “God” in five instances.  He told us that “freedom is a gift from God,” that we are all equal “in the eyes of God,” and that the earth has been “commanded to our care by God,” before concluding with the obligatory “God bless you, and may He forever bless the United States of America.”

But what do such allusions to “God” really mean?  What purpose do they serve if the implication is that they carry no truth claims that would divide Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus?  I think this is an important question, and I know that I am not equipped to answer it dogmatically.  As a historian, however, I would simply add this historical context: No American president, from George Washington onward, has ever made an unambiguous, unequivocal reference to the triune God of traditional, orthodox Christian confession (e.g., as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed).

When it comes to referring to God, American presidents have been masters of creative euphemism.  To cite but a few examples, George Washington referred to “that Almighty Being who rules over the universe,” to “the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men,” and to “the benign Parent of the Human Race.”  John Adams alluded to that “Being” who is “the Patron of Order” and the “Fountain of Justice.”  James Monroe mentioned “the Divine Author,” Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan spoke of a “Divine Being,” and Zachary Taylor and Dwight Eisenhower referred to “Divine Providence.”  Thomas Jefferson and William Henry Harrison alluded to “the Creator”; Andrew Jackson referred to “that Power”; and Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and Bill Clinton each made mention of “the Almighty.”  More recently, George W. Bush referred to the “Author of liberty” and “Maker of heaven and earth.”

What do all of these references to God have in common?  None of them is uniquely Christian; none of them is explicitly Trinitarian.  There have been fifty-eight inaugural addresses since George Washington was elected as the first President of the United States in 1789.  In addition to a host of euphemisms such as those mentioned above, the word “God” appears fifty-four times in those addresses.  The words “Jesus” and “Christ” have never appeared.  In sum, the rhetoric of American inaugural addresses has always been the language of what sociologist Robert Bellah long ago termed “civil religion”—a set of vague, least-common-denominator principles calculated to unify Americans with generalities rather than divide them over specifics.

6 responses to “PRESIDENT OBAMA’S INAUGURAL ADDRESS: THINKING CHRISTIANLY AND HISTORICALLY ABOUT THE RHETORIC

  1. Pingback: Lessons of History « Wisdom

  2. Oops…sorry. I clicked on your link at D. Waring’s blog and thought I was reading her post. But, I liked yours so much (too) that I’ll continue to follow. :)

  3. As a historian, do you have any thoughts on this line from the President’s inaugural address? There are four words that stand out to me:

    “And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice — not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.”
    (http://www.npr.org/2013/01/21/169903155/transcript-barack-obamas-second-inaugural-address)

    • As a historian, I would say that these words are intended to point to a far larger, more active role for government than the original authors of either the Constitution or the Bill of Rights had in mind. It is not new to point out that when the Constitution was first created, it was widely assumed that power was always a threat to liberty, hence one of the best ways to protect the poor and the weak was by decentralizing power as much as possible. This doesn’t automatically mean that the president’s vision is wrong; it does mean that it is a departure from the prevailing vision of the founding generation. As a Christian, I would simply say that the way President Obama describes his vision for American sounds a lot like the work of Christ and His church. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue at Nazareth, quoting from the prophet Isaiah, “because He has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor . . .” (Luke 4:18). Jay, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on the passage you cited from the president’s address.

      • Sorry it took so long for me to reply. I agree that the passage proposes a far more active role for government than the founders ever intended, but I was struck by him using the phrase “peace in our time.” Did he and his staff really not know the history there? If I had been advising him, I would have told him to stay away from a phrase associated with one of the most embarassing moments in doplomacy!

  4. Pingback: Faith and History Meets Our President(s) « CFH Grad Students Weblog

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