Today is a day for pomp and circumstance, for pageantry and for rejoicing. We celebrate not only the inauguration for the second time of America’s first black president but the birthday of one our most important historical figures, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. With this as background, it is interesting if not ironic to note that every day there are more and more Americans who are uncomfortable with if not downright hostile to the intersection of religion and faith and the public life of the nation. There are people out there who want "In God We Trust" removed from the nation’s currency, who object to prayers being offered at presidential inaugurals, and who want the country to be officially secular, giving greater constitutional weight to Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists than they do the actual language of the first amendment of the Bill of Rights.
For a country founded by religious pilgrims seeking freedom of worship, and with polls consistently showing the country to be the most Christian nation on earth, America seems to have an awfully uneasy relationship with the Almighty. On the one hand political leaders are ready to invoke His providence and guidance and blessing at almost any moment; on the other, delegates to the 2012 Democratic National Convention almost voted Him out of their platform. Nevertheless it is impossible to deny that in this country people of all faiths look heavenward as the occasion allows, whether in times of tragedy or great celebration. No where is this more common perhaps than during a presidential inaugural. Thanks to a handy little book called Endowed by Their Creator published by First Principles Press, it is easy to find the prayers offered by incoming chief executives all in one place. Taken one by one, they are stark reminders of the times in which they were made, no more so than in Lincoln’s second inaugural when, as the Civil War was beginning its march toward a close, the 16th president of the United States repeatedly referenced the heavenly father as he called for unity and reunification.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations,” Lincoln said.
Taken together, the various references to God by the different men taking the presidential oath allude to a nation conceived as a testament to the faith of free men and women under a just and forgiving Creator.
The tradition began with Washington, who in his first inaugural said, “I shall take my present leave; but without resorting once more to the benign Parent of the Human Race in humble supplication that, since He has been pleased to favor the American people with opportunities for deliberating in perfect tranquility, and dispositions for deciding with unparalleled unanimity on a form of government for the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness, so His divine blessing may be equally conspicuous in the enlarged views, the temperate consultations, and the wise measures on which the success of this government must depend.”
Washington was followed by John Adams, who said in 1797, ”I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations or the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes…”
Even Jefferson, whom many argue was at best a “Deist” and, at worst a nonbeliever said in 1801, “May that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”
Andrew Jackson, the founder of the modern Democratic Party, invoked God when he said in 1829 that “a firm reliance on the goodness of that Power whose providence mercifully protected our national infancy, and has since upheld our liberties in various vicissitudes, encourages me to offer up my ardent supplications that He will continue to make our beloved country the object of His divine care and gracious benediction.” Franklin Roosevelt, in his first inaugural, said, “We humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us, May He guide me in the days to come.”
John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic president, also invoked the author of the universe in his address, saying, “With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our won.”
Ronald Reagan, who took office in a time of national decline, rallied the nation in 1981 by saying, in part, “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 Inauguration Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer.”
As he gives his second address, Barack Obama too will no doubt invoke the blessing of God on this nation, unique in the annuls of recoded history as a place where the faithful of many creeds may join together under a banner of equality and liberty. This was, at its core, the message of Dr. King, that all men and women are indeed created equal in the eyes of God and are, as the Declaration of Independence states, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” It is the faithful who have moved American forward and, God willing, who will continue to move America forward into the 21st century.