President Obama Inaugural Speech and American Civil Religion

Michael A Rizzotti

This essay is a follow-up to Religio and American Civil Religion” in response to President Obama’s inaugural speech. The contents will reveal a continuity with traditional themes delivered by past Presidents. The speech also includes some departures that show a novel development in respect to typical tenets of American civil religion.

American civil religion was developed by Robert N. Bellah. The term was originally coined in 1967. The idea was expanded in his books Beyond Belief and Broken Covenant published in the nineteen seventies. American civil religion consists of references to God or divine providence present in The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the content of inaugural speeches delivered by American Presidents.

Although American civil religion has Judeo-Christian tenets and background, Bellah dispels any suggestion that it has rigid traditional Christian doctrinal content or origin, or is a substitute for Christianity. He contends that civil religion has a similar unifying role and function as religion, but is specifically political. As such, it appeals to all the people with different religious backgrounds.

To Bellah, American civil religion is an expression of the American experience in terms of a transcendental ethical vision. This interpretation is only meaningful if made in relation to the origin and destiny of the U.S. political model of freedom and democracy. Bellah further points out that the God of civil religion is a God of order and freedom rather than of love and forgiveness. It is a God mostly concerned with the history and destiny of the United States of America.

The term “civil religion” was taken from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract. It referred to a belief system that supports the political authority of the State. In order to favor the endorsement of civic authority, Rousseau recommended the development of social harmony through the Roman concept of pietas —piety. A term that has a wider meaning than “religion” and extends to the correct relationships with parents, friends, fellow-citizens and the gods: “Piety is justice with regards to the gods” wrote Cicero —On the Nature of the Gods.

At the turn of the millennium the Religious Right’s political activism had somewhat changed the landscape of American civil religion, inaugurating a state of religious and political exceptionalism. Shattering the idea of a cultural and political inclusiveness inherent in civil religion. The change was reflected in the inaugural speeches delivered by George W Bush. Every four years the inauguration is reenacted as a ritual of democracy. President Obama’s inaugural speech allows us to review to what extent he abides by traditional tenets of American civil religion.

President Obama’s Inaugural Speech

On the solemn day of January 20th 2009 the author was on jury duty, fulfilling his unconditional responsibility as a US citizen. The call began at 7:45 AM. After jury instructions he joined an attentive audience gathered around a television set in an adjacent room. The crammed room blocked the view of the President but not the words of the ongoing speech. It was an emotional experience in a kafkaesque setting. At the end of the President’s elocution the women sitting next to your captive listener began to weep (1).

The gathering of over 1.5 million people coming from all parts of the country was unprecedented. The congregation that filled the National Mall can be qualified as a pilgrimage. The assembly, which is another word for “church”, congregated under a cold winter sky along a park containing a triad of the capital’s landmarks: The Capitol, the Washington National Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. All gathered to witness a historical political “change”. A change that for many meant a redemption of injustices of the past.

The inaugural speech was labeled by some journalists as a “sermon”, reinforcing the nature of the ceremonial as a ritual of American civil religion (2). The word sermon is usually reserved for a discourse delivered from a pulpit based on a text of the Scripture for the purpose of religious instruction. The term is not typically used to describe inaugural speeches. The correlation reveals to what degree the elocution evoked a spiritual significance to the listeners, validating in the process the enduring essence of American civil religion.

The first reference to religion and the constitution are related in the following paragraph:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

The general term of Scripture is used rather than New Testament. The words “childish things” is taken from 1 Corinthians 13:11. Depending on which New Testament version is used, the passage is translated either into “childish things” or “childish ways”.

The words “pursue” and “happiness” is a reference to the Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. And the words “God-given promise” is an implicit connection between the “promise” of God to his chosen people and the ongoing “promise” of God to the nation founded by the Founding Fathers. This type of correlation is typical of American civil religion and has been made by many previous presidents.

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. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

One can only guess what Albert Einstein would have thought of being labeled a “non-believer” (3). Einstein denied the “belief” in a personal God, but did acknowledge the existence of a “high degree of order” and “the harmony of the Universe”. And we can only surmise what notable atheists like Daniel Dennett, Noam Chomsky, Sam Harris, to name only a few, think of being labeled as such. In the US it is still taboo to refer to “non-believers” by their proper designation of atheists. More so in an inaugural speech. Especially if one keeps in mind that approximately 50% of the US population has a “negative” view of people who don’t believe in God.

In referring to Christians, Muslims, Jews and Hindus, the President left out close to 40% of the world’s religious belief systems. Most prominent of which is the Chinese moral and philosophical tenets based on ancestral respect and Confucianism.

Buddhism, not mentioned, is now the fastest growing religious belief system in the United States. Hank Johnson the newly elected congressman of Georgia, who is African American, is a Buddhist. And Mazie Hirono, congresswoman of Hawaii, is also a Buddhist by way of her Japanese cultural upbringing.

Hank Johnson is a member of Soka Gakkai, a Japanese New Religious Movement (NRM). The designation is used by scholars of sociology of religion to describe the more recent alternative religious forms of expression other than the traditional religions. It is used as a substitute to the more pejorative definition of “cult”. Some noted examples of NRM are: Bahá’í Faith, Christian Scientists, Jews for Jesus, PTL  and TBN (Tele Evangelism), Moral Majority Inc, The Rapture and Left Behind.

Among the other forms of religious expressions not alluded in the elocution are ancestral world religions representing a myriad of aboriginal cosmologies. These native religious belief systems can be found in every corner of the land and have a deep connection to the Spirit and nature. They are a living legacy of the world’s religious forms of expression.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society’s ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy…

The President then proceeds to address the moral and political issue of Islam especially in connection with the US military involvement in the Middle-East. Recent surveys reveal that two thirds of the Muslims living in the US are foreign born. Most have immigrated to the US since 1990. One third of Muslims are converts. And the majority of these converts are African Americans. A notable example is the recently elected Andre Carson who will join the first Muslim Keith Ellison in Congress.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent’s willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Faith, correlated to the American people, the government and nation are integrated into a spiritual whole. Faith here, is understood as an abiding feature of man’s or woman’s mode of existence as a person: A human being open to all levels and manners of communication. Every person is a potential believer and already in possession of the endowment to believe —to freely accept— “something greater than themselves”. This feature is inextricably linked with history. As a result, the inference can be made that faith, the American people and the government is a collection of dynamic components that make up the civil and religious “body” that defines a nation (4).

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment — a moment that will define a generation — it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

The brave American soldiers currently fighting abroad are given as an example of the guardians of liberty “that embody the spirit of service”. They represent what it means to believe in “something greater than themselves”. The exact meaning of “greater” remains elusive and is open to interpretation. What is made clear, with somber implication, is the President’s call to all Americans to be ready to match the spirit of service of these men and women.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

Every American citizen has the responsibility to shape the destiny of the United States. More so in uncertain and uncharted times. As the President explains, the call to duty is not only made by the holder of the highest office in the land but also by God. It is only with this commitment that liberty is possible and can thrive. Only with freedom can a nation mature and prosper.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall

As the elocution reaches its conclusion, several key words stand out and gravitate around a central theme. What they imply is simultaneously characteristic of American civil religion but also carry an underlying spiritual tone. Especially in view that the President used the word spirit five times, the same number of times as he uses the word God. One might infer that he is equating spirituality and religion in terms of importance and value.

The faith —or creed— of the American people is founded on the liberty of every man and woman, child of every race and faith, to join in celebration together in this metaphorical “Mall” called the nation. We the People is the incipient and ongoing celebration of the mystical body comprised of all of its citizens.

The last words end with a reminder about the responsibilities of the elders toward their children and future generations, that they may share the same benefits of freedom the nation gave their parents and the past generations. And calling on God’s grace to protect the freedom of the people for generations to come..

Let it be said by our children’s children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America

_________________________

(1) After a long wait in the main sitting room our group of potential jury candidates were directed to courtroom number 45 at 2:30 PM. Further instructions were given to us. Following a long period of time outside the courtroom we were finally invited in as an audience. The judge explained to us, in an eloquent and charming manner, that our services would not be required for the case. The defense and the prosecution agreed to settle out of court. The judge explained that although we were not called to fulfill our jury service we were nevertheless instrumental in the conclusion of the legal process. The young man sitting next to his lawyer who was accused of a criminal offense would be given a proverbial second chance and released on parole. The outcome was an uplifting ending that absolved the long wait and the waste of one’s day. We were then asked to return to our waiting room until we were finally dismissed at 4:30 PM, exempt to serve jury duty for another year.

(2) Arianna Huffington’s description Obama’s Sober Sermon on the Steps. “For me, the most compelling moment of the speech came when he quoted the Bible. While we remain a young nation, he said, “the time has come to set aside childish things.”  Robert Fisk: “More a sermon than an Obama inaugural, even the Palestinians in Damascus spotted the absence of those two words: Palestine and Israel. So hot to touch they were, and on a freezing Washington day, Obama wasn’t even wearing gloves.”

(3) “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive. However, I am also not a “Freethinker” in the usual sense of the word because I find that this is in the main an attitude nourished exclusively by an opposition against naive superstition. My feeling is insofar religious as I am imbued with the consciousness of the insuffiency of the human mind to understand deeply the harmony of the Universe which we try to formulate as “laws of nature.” It is this consciousness and humility I miss in the Freethinker mentality.” Sincerely yours, Albert Einstein. —Letter to A. Chapple, Australia, February 23, 1954.

(4) Paul of Tarsus, the author of “childish things” quote in the speech, is perhaps the second most important person in Christendom after Jesus. He is the author of the most enduring definition of the church as the mystical body of Christ: “in the same way, all of us, though there are so many of us, make up of one body in Christ” (Rm. XII, 5).

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