Thursday, November 13, 2008

Commander-in-Chief of Beliefs?

Barack Obama ended his election-night speech with "may God bless America," a softer take on George W Bush (and John Kerry's) "God Bless America." Obama's faith seems a more open kind, or at least more open to question.

Being non-Christian in America is no easy road. We are still a Christian nation, and the growth of racial minority populations has done little to change that. Those who refer to our nation's founding say it rests on "Judeo-Christian values," forgetting the debt that secular humanism owes to Hinduism's perennial philosophy. Those more inclusive-minded allude to "Abrahamic faiths," but again, for us Hindus, it's a miss.

Some progressives say that the absorption (the subversion?) of religion by politicians started with George W. Bush. A claim that, while it may feel good, is obviously false: George Washington began his First Inaugural Address with "fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe." Since it is most natural to invoke God's help when starting something new, it makes sense to examine inaugural addresses: the first speech from a President to his country.

John Adams, setting the blueprint for future Bush, saved God for the end of his 1797 inaugural, concluding with a plea to "that Being who is supreme over all." Jefferson asked for the blessing of the "Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe." Madison opted for "Almighty Being," Monroe addressed "fervent prayers to the Almighty," JQAdams quoted a Psalm and asked for "His favor," Andrew Jackson, vaguer yet, had faith in "the goodness of that Power."

The early presidents might have been satisfied with cursory references to God, references marked not by their specificity but by their universality. They spoke often of the "Almighty" but left it at that.

The pattern changed with Lincoln. Harried and distrusted by many, Lincoln came to the capital in desperate need of whatever authority he could muster. Fittingly, he was the grand-daddy of God references, calling on the divided Union to have "faith in Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land." President Garfield introduced the signoff familiar to Americans from the past eight years, concluding his address with an invocation of the "blessings of Almighty God." The next several Presidents tempered their signoff, appealing often to the "faith of our fathers," drawing upon Christianity more as a tradition than a religion.

The signoff changed again with JFK, LBJ and Nixon, all of whom referenced God in heaven as (sacreligious as it seems!) second to man on earth. JFK believed that "here on earth God's work must truly be our own," articulating the mantra of personal service that defined his famous speech. LBJ reiterated the idea that America had made its own destiny, saying "we have been allowed by Him to seek greatness with the sweat of our hands and the strength of our spirit." Even Nixon had "confidence in the will of God and the promise of man." JFK, LBJ and Nixon were products of a progressive revolution in religious thinking. For the first time, the nation faced real religious diversity: a growing but strong Jewish minority, JFK's Catholicism - the common bond of Protestant Christianity was no longer common. It had been swallowed by faith in another near-religious ideal: American democracy.

And then, with Carter, it all changed again.
Carter opened his speech by quoting from Micah, a quote popular with Presidents for its optimism. He didn't do a signoff. Reagan did the signoff, but it was a basic "God bless you" at the end, a religious reference that seemed (forgive me, Reagan fans!) somewhat perfunctory.

George HW Bush wa nothing like his predecessor. He started with a lengthy prayer to the Heavenly Father. Not for him the vagary of "that Power" or "God bless you." He not only recited a prayer, he asked the Nation to join him in it, something no other President had so forthrightly done.

Clinton and W fell into Reagan's mold, opting for "God bless you all, and God Bless America."

What is most interesting about the evolution of Presidential references to God is how little they have changed over time. They don't necessarily correlate to party, or even to a President's personal religiosity. If anything, the Founding Fathers' lack of detail when discussing God reflected more their dedication to a nation larger than one man. Their speeches focused on the promise of America, rather than the personality of its newly-elected leader.

And this, at heart, might be the complaint some had against Bush. His "God bless America" was no different from any other President's, and less than most. But it symbolized his greater Presidential philosophy, one in which abstinence-only sex education, restrictions on embryonic stem-cell research, and abortion bans were all permissible.

In a sense, the role of God in the Inaugural Address reflects the changing role of personal politics in the development of America. For our first President, building the nation was a task for men, one in which they might or might not receive the blessing of God. For our 43rd President, preserving America became a job for God first, and men second. (The problem, as some will point out, is that there are different ways to interpret the will of God. The Founding Fathers, of course, knew this - religious conflict was one of the problems that had compelled their ancestors to America in the first place, and one of the reasons they were so vague when calling down the blessings of the "Almighty" upon the country.)

It will be interesting to see how Obama interprets this tradition in his own inaugural address. Although I have never met him, it seems from all accounts that he is deeply committed to his faith, and just as much to the moral principles embodied there (and elsewhere).

Further Reading, for those who want to analyze the "religious signoff" in inaugural addresses:
Van Buren: Divine Being
Harrison: reveres the Christian religion
Tyler: no inaugural address
Polk: invokes the "aid of that Almighty Ruler of the Universe"
Taylor: "the goodness of Divine Providence"
Fillmore: no inaugural address
Pierce: "kind Providence which smiled upon our fathers"
Buchanan: "humbly invoke the God of our fathers"
Johnson: no inaugural address
Grant: directs "the prayers of the nation to Almighty God"
Hayes: looks for the "guidance of that Divine Hand"
Arthur: no inaugural address
Cleveland: "invoke His aid and His blessings"
B. Harrison:"God has placed upon our head a diadem"
McKinley: "invoking the guidance of Almighty God"
T. Roosevelt: "gratitude to the giver of Good"
Taft: "the aid of Almighty God"
Wilson: "God helping me"
Harding: plights his troth "to God and country"
Coolidge: hopes to "merit the favor of Almighty God"
Hoover: "guidance of Almighty Providence"
FDR: "we humbly ask the blessing of God"
Truman: "faith in the Almighty"
Eisenhower: begins with a prayer
Ford: no inaugural address
Clinton: "God bless you all"
W: "God bless you all, and God Bless America"

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