Presidential inaugural addresses serve an important function. Although they may contain references to specific programs or initiatives, they are not primarily policy statements. They are first and foremost civic rituals that reinforce our collective sense of what it means to be an American. The recently elected president plays a crucial role in this by calling attention to those specific principles that are supposed to define us as a people. We all are implicated in his rhetoric.
In my last post I began to suggest ways that American Christians might think both historically and Christianly about President Obama’s inaugural address. One of the most obvious is simply to scan the text for allusions to God. When we do so, we find that President Obama referred to “God” in five instances. As a Christian, I can affirm each of the statements containing these allusions. Setting aside the perfunctory “God bless you” (did someone sneeze?) and the formulaic “may He forever bless these United States of America,” I can say “amen” to the president’s more substantive assertions 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.”
But I am pretty sure that I could also affirm them if I were Muslim or Jewish. As I noted in the last post, none of these references to God is unambiguously Christian. As a historian, this does not surprise me, for as I shared earlier, no American president has ever made in an inaugural address an unambiguous, unequivocal reference to the triune God of traditional, orthodox Christian confession. The language in these addresses makes ambiguous references to God an art form. They purvey what might be called “civil religion,” a nondescript faith defined by vague references to God shorn of specific truth claims that might offend or divide.
This pattern is so deeply ingrained and unvarying in inaugural addresses that we can rightly call it an American tradition. My point in stressing this is neither to condemn nor to defend civic pluralism. I simply want to put the president’s speech in historical context. If our goal is to think with Christian discernment about the American past, surely this is an important part of our national story.
Having said this, I think there are more penetrating questions that we might ask of the president’s speech than how many times he alluded to God. Our religious beliefs are revealed as much in our anthropology as in our theology. Our religious worldview doesn’t consist solely of our understanding of God, in other words. It is also defined by our understanding of human nature and the human condition. As we strive to think Christianly, then, we need to be asking of the president’s rhetoric—and of political rhetoric more generally—not only what does it say about God, but also what does it say about us?
Let me give just one example of what I have in mind, and in my next post I will share one or two others. At the very outset of his address, President Obama stated, “What makes us exceptional, what makes us America is our allegiance to an idea articulated in a declaration made more than two centuries ago,” referring to the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Several minutes later the president returned to these “founding principles.” “We are true” to these principles, the president proclaimed, “when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”
This is inspiring oratory, but let’s think carefully about what Mr. Obama is really saying. Following Abraham Lincoln, the president tells us that the essence of what it means to be an American is our faith in the Enlightenment principle of natural equality as the basis for political rights. In his wonderful book God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, Baylor historian Thomas Kidd shows how readily American Christians—who of course already believed that all peoples descended from a common creation—appropriated this largely secular principle and engrafted it into their worldview. Even as late as the middle of the 1700s, Congregational pastor Jonathan Edwards, arguably the greatest American theologian of all time, distinguished between spiritual and social or political equality. Because “all have sinned,” all humans—regardless of race, class, or nationality—stand on the same footing before Almighty God, equally in need of God’s grace. This spiritual equality, Edwards believed, was not inconsistent with a hierarchical society in which “different members of society have all their appointed office, place and station, according to their several capacities and talents, and everyone keeps his place.”
Let me be clear: I am not trying to make a case for inequality per se. I do want us to realize that the language of “rights” that is so pervasive today is rooted more in secular thinking than in Scripture. The Bible speaks primarily in terms of sacrifice, not self-assertion; it defines obligations far more than rights.
We must also be leery of the president’s suggestion of a future day in which the poor and powerless among us have hope not just because of their preciousness in the eyes of God but because, as a nation, we have also come to accept the equality of all people. That day may come, but as Christians we should know better than to expect it without the gracious intervention of God. God has created us from one blood, but as theologian John Howard Yoder pointed out, ever since the Fall mankind has naturally found innumerable bases for dividing and subdividing into “in” groups and “out” groups. True social harmony will never come from our giving intellectual assent to an abstract principle about the implications of our common creation. In Yoder’s words, “To make anyone believe in the equal dignity of all humans God must intervene. It took the cross to break down the wall.” And only in Christ Jesus is there “neither Jew nor Greek . . . neither slave nor free . . . neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).