Monday, January 28, 2013

God and Presidential Inaugurations

When it comes to pomp and circumstance in the United States, there are few ceremonies that can surpass the one we call the Presidential Inauguration.  The peaceful transfer of power from one executive head to the other is a matter of national pride for most Americans and serves to highlight what is best about American democracy.

In light of President Obama's swearing in last week, I thought it might be fun to review the Inaugural ceremonies (particularly the Inaugural Addresses) of presidents past, and see what sort of similarities and differences might exist.  After all, a president's Inauguration has, traditionally, served as a "coming attractions" of sorts for what a president hopes to achieve.  Studying these ceremonies can help us to understand what each of the 44 American Presidencies held to be most dear.

Right out of the gate, the first thing I noticed when reviewing Presidential Inaugurations is the emphasis that each President placed on God, albeit in different ways.  From Washington to Obama, no Inaugural Address omits invoking some sort of special reference to deity.  But as I stated, the manner in which the particular invocation is made is quite different, and reveals a great deal about the President's (and society's) view of  God and his relationship to the American republic.

From George Washington's first Inaugural Address we see his typical flavor of Providential neutrality, in which his "god talk" could apply to virtually any creed in any era. He stated:
It would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. 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 (my emphasis).
Washington's first successors followed suit in invoking a generic providential figure instead of a specific deity as the divine overseer of the infant American republic.  John Adams petitioned the "Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty" to bless America, while James Madison asked for the blessings of "that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations."  Even the Great Thomas Jefferson, who has been erroneously claimed as one of their own by the modern atheists, made reference in his now infamous Inaugural Address ("We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists") when he petitioned the "Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe" to "lead our councils to what is best."  And, somewhat surprisingly, even Andrew Jackson, the "President of the People" only went so far as to invoke the blessings of "Providence" and the "Almighty Being" to assist him in his Presidential endeavors.  

It is safe to say that America's first eight presidents (with a possible exception for John Q. Adams who briefly paraphrased Psalms 127 when he stated "except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain"), intentionally invoked a warm, generic providence as being the source of America's blessings as opposed to any specifically defined god from any particular creed.  

It wasn't until 1841 and the Inauguration of William Henry Harrison that a president paid homage to a specific god:
I deem the present occasion sufficiently important and solemn to justify me in expressing to my fellow-citizens a profound reverence for the Christian religion and a thorough conviction that sound morals, religious liberty, and a just sense of religious responsibility are essentially connected with all true and lasting happiness (My emphasis). 
But even after this precedent, many subsequent presidents returned to the standard of thanking, "that Divine Being who has watched over and protected our beloved country from its infancy" (James K. Polk) and "Divine" or "Kind Providence" (Zachary Taylor and Franklin Pierce).

A specific reference to Christianity isn't made again until 1861 when the Legendary Abraham Lincoln, while facing what would become America's greatest crisis, proudly declared that "Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty."  Lincoln would again reference the Christian God in his Second Inaugural Address, but would do so with less confidence that this God was on their side:
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered—that of neither has been answered fully.
Lincoln went on to quote several Bible passages including, "Woe unto the world because of offenses! for it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!" (Matthew 18:7) and "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether" (Psalms 19:9). In so doing, Abraham Lincoln became the first president to make dramatic, substantial and blatant references to the Christian God in his Inaugural Address.  

Those presidents who followed Lincoln would invoke both the general divine providence of Washington, Jefferson, etc. (to include Presidents Grant, Hayes, B. Harrison, Cleveland, T. Roosevelt, Wilson, Taft, Hoover, FDR, L. Johnson and Clinton), while others paid homage to the Christian God of W.H. Harrison and Abraham Lincoln (including Garfield, Harding, Coolidge, Truman, JFK, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H. Bush, G.W. Bush and Obama), depending on their own individual feelings and beliefs.  Eisenhower went far enough to lead the nation in prayer as his first act of his presidency:



Regardless of which deity served to be the ultimate source of blessings and providential protection, the fact remains that ALL American presidents have, as a component of their Inaugural "coming attractions" petitioned the heavens as a source for further prosperity and as an object of communal gratitude.  The name of this god has taken on many different shapes and colors (everything from Divine Creator, Almighty Providence, to Jesus Christ himself) but the point is that a god of some kind is beseeched to go before us all, as the avant garde of American society.  This reminds me a great deal of Benjamin Franklin's admonition for a "public religion" as being the glue that would bind the American republic.  In this regard, the American experiment has worked wonders and continues to amaze even to this day.

7 comments:

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I'm watching and following all news of Obama. It is very nice to read...

Tom Van Dyke said...




Oh, I thought Lincoln was quite pointed here, uncharitable, even.

"It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

Nice to see you, Brad. See also

http://media.washtimes.com/media/image/2013/01/22/20130120edohc-a_s638x456.jpg?6d6df3fc3acdd669c3360f510cadfa6b8fe0c846

Jason Pappas said...

Quite a change over the centuries. Excellent review Brad.

Ray Soller said...

Brad, you wrote:

Right out of the gate, the first thing I noticed when reviewing Presidential Inaugurations is the emphasis that each President placed on God, albeit in different ways. From Washington to Obama, no Inaugural Address omits invoking some sort of special reference to deity.

True, GW refers to deity in his first inaugural speech, but his second inaugural speech makes no reference to the Almighty Being.

Ray Soller said...

Here's an interesting 1/22/2013 NPR article," Divine Rhetoric: God In The Inaugural Address, by Scott Neuman. Neumman, in his interview with Professor Martin J. Medhurst, has Medhurst making this interesting observation, "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."

But then Neuman wonders, "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."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Focusing on the actual word "God" is needlessly [sophistically] splitting hairs.