While the Constitution bans the government from establishing religion, it was ever-present for the country’s political pageant grandeur.
Almost all presidential inaugural addresses have included some reference to God, according to the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. The one exception was Washington’s second inaugural address, at a short 135 words, according to Duke Helfand of the Los Angeles Times.
Before the Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln said that God was punishing a people for slavery during his second inauguration address.
During Roosevelt’s first inaugural address during the Great Depression, he publicly sought the intervention of a higher power to help pull the nation through its economic and social hardships.
During his inauguration, one of George W. Bush’s first presidential acts was to call for gathered prayer during his inaugural speech.
And like the 43 presidents who came before him, President Barack Obama called upon the Almighty’s calming and powerful hand in rhetoric and practice at his inaugural address.
Aside from the oath, concluded with the phrase “So help me God,” and a morning church service, ministers delivered prayers before, during and after Obama’s inauguration.
V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay Episcopal bishop from New Hampshire, lent his spiritual words to the invocation at the day’s opening inaugural event.
Rev. Rick Warren of Orange County’s Saddleback Church, one of the largest evangelical congregations in the country, gave the inaugural invocation. Warren is an avid opponent of same-sex marriage.
Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, a civil rights leader, delivered the benediction.
And on Wednesday, the Rev. Sharon E. Watkins, the general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) served as the first woman to give a sermon at the National Prayer Service in Washington, D.C.’s National Cathedral.
While we appreciate the refreshing diversity of the speakers, that’s a lot of God for one inauguration.
Some historians and legal scholars have deemed this sort of “ceremonial deism” acceptable, saying that it reflects cultural and traditional values more than it reflects religious ones.
Nonetheless, no one can deny that these kinds of God-heavy inclusions in inauguration proceedings contradict the Constitution’s promise of separation of church and state.
However, many experts believe ‘He’ will continue ‘His’ presence at inaugural ceremonies — just as ‘He’ has for more than two centuries.
But the fight for secularity has far from fizzled, even after many knockdowns. While the presidential relationship with God reflected in the inauguration is relatable for many Americans, it is by no means relatable for all Americans.
Eleven groups and 30 individuals sued — to no avail — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and others involved in the inauguration to keep “so help me God” out of the ceremony. The phrase is not mandated by the Constitution, but has been uttered repeatedly by the majority of presidents since its first inclusion by Chester A. Arthur in 1881.
While President Obama and those before him have the right to say what they believe — it’s their party, they can pray if they want to — the fact that religion is such a staple at these events reflects the blurred lines of church and state.
Atheists, humanists, agnostics and many others of various beliefs have long objected to the use of religious rhetoric and symbolism in government functions, arguing that the inauguration’s many religious features violate the First Amendment’s ban against government establishment of religion.
The staff of City on a Hill Press, and the citizens of the United States of America for that matter, reflect a spectrum of religious and nonreligious beliefs. In recognition of this, the country should adopt a more secular inaugural ceremony.
That is not to discourage religious celebration. Religious groups all over the country sponsored a host of unofficial events last week independently from the government-sponsored event, which, as the Constitution states, is how it should be: separate.