Obama’s Second Inaugural

Diana Butler Bass, well-known progressive American Christian and author, may well want to capture President Obama’s Second Inaugural as a species of progressive theology, but some of us would like to see a little more about African American liberation theology.

Still, what do you think of her analysis?

It was not only a politically progressive speech, however, it was a masterwork of progressive theology: a public sermon on the meaning of America, a creedal statement and a call to practice that faith in the world. It was an expression of a genuinely pluralistic America, the first inaugural address of a new sort of American civil spirituality….

But the old civil religion is no longer enough. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the percentage of the Christian population has declined as the number of nones, atheists, agnostics, and those adhering to non-Christian religions increased exponentially. In 2011, according to the Pew Forum, the United States became an officially pluralistic religious country for the first time in its history, with no single faith tradition claiming the allegiance of 50 percent of the population. Overtly Judeo-Christian understandings of God are no longer adequate to address and include all of America’s people. President Obama is the first president who, as a Christian person, has to speak to and for the new communities of American faiths.

What can a president do? Leave faith out of the equation? Or find new ways of expressing the transcendent meanings of community? Abandoning the language of faith would, of course, be the easier path (and the favored choice for the atheists in our midst). In his inaugural speech, President Obama did not choose the easy road. Instead, he linked his progressive political agenda with transcendent values, with a spiritual appeal to the new American pluralism….

Not only is this idea [of our life as a journey] at the core of President Obama’s liberal Christianity, it is also central to contemporary spiritualities, Judaism, Buddhism, forms of native religion, Islamic traditions and agnosticism. To call the American people into a journey is both a spiritual and political invitation toward new understanding of who we are and who we might be. To President Obama, the appeal is a Christian one, but also one shared and understood by others. It is both specific and open at the same time.

In the second section of the speech, President Obama articulated six beliefs of a spiritual and political, as well as inclusive and pluralistic, creed: 1) We believe in community; 2) We believe in shared prosperity; 3) We believe in mutual care of one another; 4) We believe in stewardship of the Earth; 5) We believe in peacemaking; and 6) We believe in equality and human rights. Each one of these creedal statements was backed by subtle references to Hebrew or Christian scriptures, an occasional historical reference to a noted sermon or hymn, as well as more general appeals to God or divine favor….

The inaugural address was assertively progressive. It was also a powerful and deeply nuanced piece of public theology in the liberal Protestant tradition. As such, it embraced the new American pluralism as a welcome expansion of our national journey. In the process, President Obama gave us an innovative new form of public address-his was the first spiritual-but-not-religious inaugural sermon, a twenty-first century expression of American civil spirituality, embedded in but not dependent upon the ancient vision of American Protestant theology of and for God’s almost-chosen, always striving nation.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    After a term in which my seminary class “Preaching in the Urban Context” gave me an excellent full context for “liberation theology,” as Theologies which speak to and from the socio-historical location of the peoples who develop them” I agree with Scot’s initial comment. I would have liked seeing a bit more of the Black Liberation Theology, that is quite present in President Obama’s home city of Chicago. I believe that hearing this theology is part of speaking truthfully in 21st century America, and that President Obama, in a second inaugural was in the perfect place to provide it. Doing so, would of course, have raised controversy, but that too is part of speaking truthfully.

    Peace,
    Randy Gabrielse


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