THE RHETORIC OF THE PRESIDENT’S INAUGURAL ADDRESS—DIGGING MORE DEEPLY

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).

11 responses to “THE RHETORIC OF THE PRESIDENT’S INAUGURAL ADDRESS—DIGGING MORE DEEPLY

  1. Pingback: That Was The Month That Was: History « The Pietist Schoolman

  2. Are you saying that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights…life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is untrue because its origin is not biblical? Scripture doesn’t talk a lot about rights, yet Paul asserted his as a Roman citizen. He also taught that the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Can a biblical interpretation be applied to Enlightenment ideas?

    • Yes, I do think it is possible to think of Enlightenment ideas in Biblical terms, i.e., it may be possible sometimes to re-express them Biblically, or think of them as logical extensions of, or as consistent with, Biblical principles. I just don’t find the concept of rights in the Bible, and as a historian, I think there is considerable evidence that our belief in God-given rights is a recent development and is primarily a product of Enlightenment influence. I am not arguing that this makes the concept of rights, ipso facto, invalid, we just need to be sure that the concept, if not expressly biblical, is at least clearly consistent with biblical principles. The example you raise of Paul is an interesting one, but I would note that Paul was not claiming the protection of a God-given right but of what might be called a “conventional” right. Over time there had developed a societal convention concerning the prerogatives of Roman citizenship. Paul was willing to take advantage of it, but the positive principles that we find in the Pauline epistles have much more to do with mutual submission than with self-assertion. I don’t think this passage will take us nearly as far as we need to go if we are to arrive at a strong biblical argument for inalienable human rights. If you are interested in thinking more about the idea of Christian-Enlightenment synthesis, I would recommend Mark Noll’s _America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln_. (Parenthetically, would you be the “George Pringle” I used to know back in Seattle?)

      • George Pringle

        Yep, it’s me, Tracy. I’ve enjoyed catching up on your blog and thinking about the issues you’ve brought up. My regards to your family.

  3. If we think in terms of OUR rights as in MY rights, the concept of human rights can be egocentric. If we think in terms of human rights of OTHER PEOPLE, it is a wholly different, opposite, matter. If God GIVES these “inalienable rights” then we also should do what God does and give rights to respect and dignity to other people.

    • I appreciate your observation, Andrew, and IF God gives these rights I think your conclusion is correct. My concern is that there is simply not much scriptural support for the idea of God-given rights. In historical context, the American Christians in the late colonial period who adopted the language of rights were integrating Enlightenment ideas into their Biblical framework, in many cases (perhaps most) unconsciously.

      • The concept of “rights” just wasn’t around in biblical times so we can’t expect any biblical authors to think in those terms. But what would Jesus say if we read him the Bill of Rights in the American Constitution? Would he say people should be subjected to unreasonable search or seizure because they have no right not to be? We know what King Herod would have thought of that. He proved that with an unreasonable seizure of John the Baptist. The Ten Commandments are not a bill of rights in 18th century terms, but the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” does imply that God has given people the right to live, which means that we don’t have the right to go around killing people. Jesus treated people in ways that suggested he thought people have the right to be treated with respect and dignity. If we didn’t have the New Testament, if it had never been written and Jesus had never lived, I doubt that there would be much talk about human rights today. From what I’ve read about in world history, King Herod’s way is the default mechanism, that & Caiaphas. I think we all stand in need of God’s mercy for lots of reasons, among them the way we treat people. We need God’s grace to make the dream of equality – in the sense of equal & fair opportunity – as you say, but it seems to me that means being open to the grace God gives us to do what we can to help make it happen.

  4. Thank you so much for making the distinction between political rights and the Bible’s emphasis on our responsibility to care for one another. The Enlightenment emphasis on rights can simulate Christian care, but it actually sets up rivalry between those who are agitating for their rightful rights and against those who are accused of denying rights to others. Christian community, as you say so well, is derived from God’s grace, love and forgiveness. The language of rights can obscure the fact that we are not the center of the universe!

  5. I just finished a book called Ameritopia by Mark Levin. I was wondering if you have read it, and if so, what your opinion was. If not, it’s premise is to demonstrate how America has strayed from constitutionalism to utopianism, as posited by Plato, More, Hobbes, and Marx, and that proper government becomes the answer to every social evil/problem.

    • I am afraid I have not read the book, so I cannot speak knowledgeably, although I will say that I am puzzled to hear Hobbes described as a utopian, given that he had one of the darkest views of human nature I know. Regarding Mark Levin, I do occasionally listen to his radio program, and I will say that I sometimes agree with his views, but in general I find his rhetoric too intemperate. In our highly polarized political climate, I am longing to find public figures who can express their views with conviction without engaging in personal attacks. Levin falls far short in this respect, in my opinion.

      • Thanks for the reply, and I apologize if my comment was off topic. Hobbes’ Leviathan was quoted, as it sought to tightly regulate society for society’s own good, if I remember that section correctly. The book seemed to tie in to your comment about the President facilitating the “equality of all people.” As for Levin, I have only heard him a few times on the radio. I do think many/most pundits do more to polarize issues. I am trying to figure out if anything else is possible in a media driven ADD culture.

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