Yesterday was a big day for the country, with the second inauguration of President Barack H. Obama. The president gave a very important speech and the media are, excitedly, poring over it. But how were the day’s religion angles covered?
One of the more interesting angles deals with homosexuality. Not only was a pastor dismissed from the program because he spoke 20 years ago of homosexuality in terms of sinfulness, but affirmation of homosexuality was something of a requirement for participation in the public square yesterday. While mainstream media reporters — who are among the most important elites to affirm homosexuality — have noticed one side of that equation, fewer have noted the religiosity of that affirmation or what it means for those who hold to traditional Scriptural views on sexuality. The thoughtful reporter Amy Sullivan being a notable exception here.
But let’s just stick to the speech itself. I’m not one of those reporters who faints or gets a tingle up the leg at any president and I didn’t even get to hear the speech because my children were shouting at me to turn it off. But even so, I think it’s fair to say the speech was remarkable. You can read the text or watch it here. You might not be as effusive with your praise as, say, the New York Times is in its front page story headlined (best to read this as if flushed or slightly out of breath): “Inaugural Stresses Theme of Civil and Gay Rights — Safety Net Praised” — but you can still acknowledge it was an important speech laying out the case for a strong federal government.
Reader Jerry wrote in last night:
Here’s a challenge. Find a mainstream report about today’s inauguration that says what Mark Shields said tonight on the PBS News hour or mentions religion outside of the historical significance of the Bibles that were used. Of course the RNS does but the mainstream media? Ghost city.
Well, Religion News Service is definitely a mainstream media outlet and it aims to present news objectively and without a sectarian point of view. But I get Jerry’s point — it’s an outlet that seeks out religion angles.
MARK SHIELDS: I think tone does matter. I really do. I thought it was done with a smile. And I think that’s so important.
And I was just struck — just to toss in a little history thing — I mean, we’re told that we’re more a secular nation. Fewer and fewer people, you know, go to church or belong to a church or whatever. But this is an openly religious event. It begins with an invocation. It ends with a benediction, the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It was just a high moment.
Is this religion or is it more appropriately termed civil religion? It’s always been a day of civil religion and inaugural events are great ways to explore how civil religion has evolved. From the first paragraph of the Wikipedia entry on American civil religion:
American civil religion is a sociological theory that there exists a religion of the United States, a nonsectarian faith that has as its sacred symbols those of the polity and national history. Scholars have portrayed it as a cohesive force, a common set of values that foster social and cultural integration. The concept goes back to the 19th century but in current form was developed by sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967 in an article, “Civil Religion in America.” The topic soon became the major focus at religious sociology conferences and numerous articles and books were written on the subject. The debate reached its peak with the American Bicentennial celebration in 1976. There is a viewpoint that some Americans have come to see the document of the United States Constitution, along with the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights as being a cornerstone of a type of civic or civil religion.
So throughout this country’s history, certain things have been written into this common set of values and certain things have been written out. Journalists have done a very good job of creating an environment conducive to excluding certain elements from this public square, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that they have not done a very good job of covering the same.
In any case, as Jerry notes above, Religion News Service nailed this aspect of the inaugural. You should read the whole thing but it begins:
A presidential inauguration is by tradition the grandest ritual of America’s civil religion, but President Obama took the oath of office on Monday (Jan. 21) in a ceremony that was explicit in joining theology to the nation’s destiny and setting out a biblical vision of equality that includes race, gender, class, and, most controversially, sexual orientation.
The piece covers the most important angles, although it never explains why it claims that Obama set out a “biblical” vision of equality. I read the speech but never found him making a particularly biblical case and some might even note the absence of biblical justification. It is definitely true that Obama asserted that God supports homosexual behavior. Did he do that through biblical justification? I didn’t see that. So perhaps that could have been explained more.
Anyway, please let us know if you see any particularly good or bad coverage of same.