President Obama will privately take the oath of office for his second term as president at noon tomorrow in accordance with the provisions of the Twentieth Amendment to the Constitution. (That amendment, adopted in 1933, specifies that the term of the president and vice-president ends at noon on the 20th of January following a presidential election year.) Then on Monday, in a much more lavish and public ceremony (costing $50 million or more), President Obama will repeat his oath on the steps of the U. S. Capitol and then deliver to the country the second inaugural address of his presidency and the fifty-fifth inaugural address in U.S. history.
Countless reporters and pundits, along with many in the public more generally, will scrutinize the president’s speech for hints of his second-term agenda. They will also parse his rhetoric for evidence of his values and vision. The latter may be the more appropriate. Inaugural addresses are not policy statements but civic rituals, and although presidents frequently allude to challenges that face the nation, when it comes to solutions they almost always speak in generalities. Specifics divide us; platitudes have the potential, at least, to unite us. And so there are, predictably, tributes to America’s past, praise for America’s people, and assurances of America’s bright future. Inaugural addresses serve several functions, but surely one of their most important is to reinforce our sense of identity as a nation. In his classic Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville trenchantly observed that “the American people live in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.” This means that, when it comes to presidential inaugural addresses, we expect the speaker to reassure us that who we are (or who we are becoming) is who we want to be and ought to be. This is why, for the historian, one of the values of presidential inaugurals is that they can serve as a kind of window into Americans’ sense of their collective selves.
One of the questions that it makes sense to ask of inaugural addresses, then, is what role presidents have accorded to religion in defining America’s identity. In his first inaugural address four years ago, President Obama alluded implicitly to I Corinthians 13:11 and used the word “God” four times in a relatively short address. More eye-catching, however, and far more controversial was his declaration that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.” It will be interesting to see what rhetoric the president employs on Monday. In the meantime, in my next post I will share a few generalizations about religious references in presidential inaugurals throughout the nation’s past. Back soon.