Our political high holy day, part I

EDITOR’S NOTE: First of two columns on President Barack Obama’s inauguration.

As Aretha Franklin finished singing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” the queen of soul did what she has done for decades — she improvised.

The result was a soaring bridge between the inauguration of President Barack Obama and a sermon 45 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial.

“Our fathers’ God, to thee, author of liberty, to thee we sing. Long may our land be bright, with freedom’s holy light, protect us by thy might,” sang Franklin, before adding words that echoed some of the final cadences the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., added to his “I Have A Dream” address.

“Let freedom ring … From the red clay of Georgia, all the way to the Allegheny Mountains. … Let freedom ring.”

If anyone ever doubted that themes from the Civil Rights Movement have been blended into America’s “civil religion,” it’s time for those doubts to fade.

Presidential inaugurations are the “high feast days” of the vague, but powerful, faith that binds together a nation of many races and creeds. To no one’s surprise, religion played a major role in the rites for Obama, said Darrin M. Hanson, a political scientist at Xavier University of Louisiana.

“Obama has a preacher’s emotional style of speaking and he uses that to bring people together. It’s a skill he will need in the days ahead,” said Hanson, who will be analyzing the 2009 address as part of his research into the role that presidents play in America’s civil religion.

In this speech, Hanson said, Obama wanted to deliver a few sobering, “prophetic” messages as well as offer “priestly” words to encourage the million-plus people on the National Mall and the millions more watching from coast to coast and worldwide.

Thus, the new president told his listeners: “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.”

Obama then used religious images — aimed at left and right — to describe bitter divisions in the body politic.

“On this day,” he said, “we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn-out dogmas that for far too long have strangled our politics. We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things.”

When scholars describe “civil religion,” they discuss words and rituals that try to accomplish four major goals, argued Hanson, in an essay entitled “The High Priest of American Civil Religion: Continuity and Change.”

First, American “civil religion” attempts to promote unity while accepting religious pluralism. Second, this faith must remain separate from both the state and any specific religion, he said. However, if it ever favors a particular creed, it does so in defense of fundamental human rights. Finally, this “civil religion” provides unity by appealing to shared values and beliefs, acted out in common rites that are acceptable to most believers.

In one passage, the new president managed to combine a number of “civil religion” themes, while also evoking deep emotions at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement and his own personal pilgrimage.

“This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny,” said Obama. “This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed, why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall. And why a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

The key, said Hanson, is that Obama managed to hit a few hard topics — from global terror to an economic recession — while emphasizing words of hope.

“If you are trying to bring people together, you can’t be too specific when you talk about the things that drive people apart,” he said. “Inaugural addresses, and I’ve read them all, are supposed to be vague — but inspiring. …

“In the end, it’s easier to be a priestly and successful president than it is to be a prophetic and successful president. It’s hard to tell people, ‘We have really messed up and all of us are going to have to change.’ ”

NEXT: The politics of prayer, in two dramatic acts.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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