President Obama Offers Religious Continuity with Previous Presidents


President Barack Obama’s inaugural address struck a more politically pragmatic pitch than the oratorical proclamation many had predicted. It was more about traveling the path ahead than reaching the promised land.

President Barack Obama’s inaugural address struck a more politically pragmatic pitch than the oratorical proclamation many had predicted. It was more about traveling the path ahead than reaching the promised land.

Like his recent presidential predecessors, four of whom were present, Obama retained a continuity in his use of language from the Judeo-Christian faith tradition.

“We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things,” he said with what could be a reference to either Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 or 1 Corinthians 13:11 (the available speech did not include a textual citation).

Obama said, “The time has come … to choose our better history,” which might well have echoed Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address in 1861 that ended with an appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

He acknowledged “the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

From the perspective of religion, one of his striking moments came when he said, “For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus—and non-believers.”

Another was his appeal to the Islamic world, something similar to what George Bush did in his 2005 inaugural address that helped mainstream Islam.

“To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” said the new president.

At the end of his speech, he identified the source of American confidence—“the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.”

The space given to the Bible and religious language paralleled recent presidential addresses, save Jimmy Carter, whose address tilted toward the sermonic.

“I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land,” said Jimmy Carter in 1977. “In this outward and physical ceremony, we attest once again to the inner and spiritual strength of our Nation.”

In his third paragraph, Carter noted, “Here before me is the Bible used in the inauguration of our first President, in 1789, and I have just taken the oath of office on the Bible my mother gave me just a few years ago, opened to a timeless admonition from the ancient prophet Micah: ‘He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.’”

He used other religious words: “spirituality,” “moral duties,” “pray together,” “a spirit of individual sacrifice for the common good,” “moral sense” and “moral strength.”

If Carter’s address had a sermonic sound, Ronald Reagan’s first address had a secular note, save the boilerplate civil religion.

Reagan said: “I'm told that tens of thousands of prayer meetings are being held on this day, and for that I'm deeply grateful. We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free. It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inaugural Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer.”

Reagan’s second inaugural address contained more religious language than the first.

“Representative Gillis Long of Louisiana left us last night. And I wonder if we could all join in a moment of silent prayer,” said Reagan in 1985. A moment later, he said “Amen” and continued his speech.

He referenced George Washington placing “his hand upon the Bible.” He said, “We utter no prayer more fervently than the ancient prayer for peace on Earth.”

Reagan concluded: “We raise our voices to the God who is the Author of this most tender music. And may He continue to hold us close as we fill the world with our sound—in unity, affection, and love—one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world. God bless you, and God bless America.”

George Hebert Walker Bush actually prayed in his inaugural address.

“[M]y first act as President is a prayer. I ask you to bow your heads,” he said. “Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank You for Your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.’ For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us remember, Lord. Amen.”

Nearing the conclusion, Bush said, “if our flaws are endless, God's love is truly boundless.”

In 1993, Bill Clinton wove the language of rebirth through his address. He used phrases like “a spring reborn,” “a new season of American renewal” and “rededicate ourselves.”

He quoted in his concluding paragraph Galatians 6:9: “And let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not.”

Pivoting around the theme of the “promised land” in his second inaugural address, Clinton mentioned the Baptist prophet—Martin Luther King— and quoted a Catholic Cardinal—Joseph Bernardin.

“Abandonment and abuse are not acts of God, they are failures of love,” said George W. Bush in his first address. “And the proliferation of prisons, however necessary, is no substitute for hope and order in our souls.”

He referenced “a pastor’s prayer,” before saying: “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws.”

“I can pledge our nation to a goal: When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side,” he said, ending with a spiritual note about an angel riding the whirlwind and directing the storm.

Bush said in 2005, “From the day of our founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this Earth has rights and dignity and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of heaven and Earth.”

He said “evil is real” and referred to “the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.”

Toward the end of his speech, Bush spoke theologically: “We go forward with complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom, not because history runs on the wheels of inevitability—it is human choices that move events; not because we consider ourselves a chosen nation—God moves and chooses as He wills.”

President Obama has passed his first test as president for many people of faith by retaining the continuity with his predecessors in the use of religious language.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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