Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Deseret News says It's OK to add a Tag Line

Back on inauguration day, the Salt Lake City Deseret News posted an article by Matthew Brown with the heading,  Obama, like many presidents before him, added 'So help me God' to end of presidential oath

I saw two glitches in the article, so I wrote the author saying, "The statement, 'Every president since [Chester A. Arthur], including Obama, has followed suit,' is way off the mark. The fact is that the 'every president since' remark belongs to FDR. If one does the research, then the results show only a few presidents from Chester A. Arthur to FDR added what is a non-biblical, extra-constitutional religious codicil to their presidential oath. (Hoover is the last president who did not say SHMG.)

I also said, "As for constitutional historian R. B. Bernstein's challenge "to find any presidential speech that doesn't make a lot of mention of God" that's a no-brainer. GW's second inaugural speech makes no mention of the Almighty".

A few edits later, the part about "every president since [Chester Arthur]" was removed, and, as for the Bernstein challenge, this is what appeared:
[T]he oath of office is only one mention of God in a ceremony that has historically included religious participation and references from prayers and music to a president's inaugural address. 
"I challenge you to find any presidential speech that doesn't make a lot of mention of God," constitutional historian R. B. Bernstein told USA Today
Blogger Ray Soller, who has taken a personal interest in sorting out the history of God talk in presidential inaugurations, took up Bernstein's challenge and found Washington's second inaugural address in 1793 is the sole exception, according to an email exchange between Bernstein and Soller, forwarded to the Deseret News.
 I really haven't specialized in sorting out the history of God talk in presidential inaugurations, But, if one wants to followup on this subject,  there is, along with Brad Hart's recent contribution, this 1/22/2013 NPR article, Divine Rhetoric: God In The Inaugural Address, by Scott Neuman that presents its own contribution.. Here's a taste:
Martin J. Medhurst, a professor of rhetoric and communication at Baylor, a private Baptist university in Waco, Texas, says formulations such as "the Almighty" and "Divine Providence" were part of "a common language adopted by the revolutionary generation in part to avoid the kind of divisiveness that more specific formulations might engender." 
In fact, the word "God" doesn't even show up in an inaugural speech until 1821, when James Monroe vowed during his second inaugural to carry out his presidential duties "with a firm reliance on the protection of Almighty God."
[dot - dot -dot] 
What changed? Two things, Duncan and Medhurst agree: the dying out of the revolutionary generation that was so reluctant to invoke a personal god; and a Protestant revival that was gathering steam just as Monroe became president.
Monroe was apparently as astute a politician as any, and his God reference neatly coincided with the Second Great Awakening, an explosion of Baptist and Methodist congregations in the U.S. that was partly a reaction to the distant deism of the Founding Fathers.
Even so, from the 1820s until the late 1850s, as the country moved unstoppably toward civil war, presidents reverted back to the safer territory of Almighty Being and Divine Providence.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Good post on the facts, Ray.

However, lots of questionable speculation about the rhetoric of the Founding times and thereafter, eschewing "God" for other, more colorful--and IMO more edifying terms-- such as "Almighty" and "Providence."

There seems to be a concerted effort in some quarters--and it's the militantly secular/anti-religious types, Ray, as we know---to separate the God of the Founding from the God of the modern evangelical Religious Right.

The latter "accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior," and indeed God the Father is a "personal" God.
However, this misses the forest for the trees in that the Almighty [god] of Providence was even more scary to the secular/anti-religious strain in 21st century America.

For there's no denying that the Invisible Hand that GWash spoke of in America's First Inaugural Address in 1789

"No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency..."

is the same [g]od of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.

Actually, I think the anti-religious left would rather take their chances with Jesus of the Beatitudes and the Gospels than The Mighty Jehovah of the Old Testament.

But that's another discussion, eh? I find the entire dispute quite incoherent. Meanwhile, there's little question that the G-d of the Founding was, as GWash put it

May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah.

Ray Soller said...

Tom, thanks for your opening acknowledgement.

I do try to stay on topic and close to the facts. But, that's why George Washington, in his letter to the Savannah Hebrew Congregations, has me stumped. I mean —with all due respect to our often cited, precedent setting first president— if I fathom what is implied in his letter, then I can't grasp how the providential Trinitarian God of the Revolution is supposed to closely match up with the monotheistic, wonder-working Deity, Jehovah, of the Tanakh.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think Tom's answer is such God is not necessarily the Triune God of orthodox Christianity but is necessarily the Jehovah of the Old Testament (something that connects Jews and Christians).

I would note, it's a monotheistic God. Jews, Christians, Muslims, Unitarians, Universalists, certain kinds of Deists, Great Spirit worshipping unconverted Natives, and others all worshipped a monotheistic God.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes and no. It's the G-d of the Bible. Mileage varies in the above groups on the veracity of that book.

JMS said...

Ray - IMHO I think you and Scott Neuman have misinterpreted James Monroe and taken him - and his religious views - out of context.

David Holmes is the only historian of U.S. Religion that has ever given Monroe his due in his book, "Faith of the Founding Fathers" (2006 edition), and in this web article from which I am quoting:

“James Monroe maintained a life-long affiliation with the church in which he was raised. But the surviving evidence indicates that Monroe was not a Christian in the traditional sense. Neither his private nor his public writings suggest that he ever experienced a sense of the mystery or awe that is at the heart of orthodox Christianity. No evidence exists to show that he was an active or emotionally engaged Christian. Like Washington, Monroe was neither a philosophical nor a highly intellectual man. A practical, problem-solving person, he was highly effective when he worked on practical matters. Unlike Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, he did not seem to spend extensive time considering why the universe was so. James Monroe seems to have been an Episcopalian of deistic tendencies [and a Freemason] who valued civic virtues above religious doctrine. From his 18th to his 73rd year, he was almost continually in public service. Reflective, tactful, practical, simple in his tastes, democratic in his convictions, James Monroe may have been the most skeptical of the early presidents of the United States.”