Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Tracy McKenzie on the Religious Rhetoric in Obama's Second Inaugural Address

McKenzie, chair of the History Department at Wheaton College, explores Obama's use of religious rhetoric from the perspective of a Christian historian.  Here is a taste:

Four years ago the newly elected president angered many Christians with his declaration that “we are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”  Pundits will be parsing the president’s rhetoric for weeks, but my initial impression is that today’s speech was not quite as pointed as Obama’s 2009 address in linking American identity with an amalgam of world religions (not to mention atheism as well).  Those who simply want to count terms will note that the president referred to “God” in five instances.  He told us that “freedom is a gift from God,” that we are all equal “in the eyes of God,” and that the earth has been “commanded to our care by God,” before concluding with the obligatory “God bless you, and may He forever bless the United States of America.”

But what do such allusions to “God” really mean?  What purpose do they serve if the implication is that they carry no truth claims that would divide Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus?  I think this is an important question, and I know that I am not equipped to answer it dogmatically.  As a historian, however, I would simply add this historical context: No American president, from George Washington onward, has ever made an unambiguous, unequivocal reference to the triune God of traditional, orthodox Christian confession (e.g., as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed).

When it comes to referring to God, American presidents have been masters of creative euphemism.  To cite but a few examples, George Washington referred to “that Almighty Being who rules over the universe,” to “the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men,” and to “the benign Parent of the Human Race.”  John Adams alluded to that “Being” who is “the Patron of Order” and the “Fountain of Justice.”  James Monroe mentioned “the Divine Author,” Martin Van Buren and James Buchanan spoke of a “Divine Being,” and Zachary Taylor and Dwight Eisenhower referred to “Divine Providence.”  Thomas Jefferson and William Henry Harrison alluded to “the Creator”; Andrew Jackson referred to “that Power”; and Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, and Bill Clinton each made mention of “the Almighty.”  More recently, George W. Bush referred to the “Author of liberty” and “Maker of heaven and earth.”

What do all of these references to God have in common?  None of them is uniquely Christian; none of them is explicitly Trinitarian.  There have been fifty-eight inaugural addresses since George Washington was elected as the first President of the United States in 1789.  In addition to a host of euphemisms such as those mentioned above, the word “God” appears fifty-four times in those addresses.  The words “Jesus” and “Christ” have never appeared.  In sum, the rhetoric of American inaugural addresses has always been the language of what sociologist Robert Bellah long ago termed “civil religion”—a set of vague, least-common-denominator principles calculated to unify Americans with generalities rather than divide them over specifics.

1 comment:

Tom Van Dyke said...


As a historian, however, I would simply add this historical context: No American president, from George Washington onward, has ever made an unambiguous, unequivocal reference to the triune God of traditional, orthodox Christian confession (e.g., as summarized in the Apostles’ Creed or Nicene Creed).


Strictly true re inaugral addresses. Largely true, although John Adams' 1799 thanksgiving address invokes Trinitarian language.

"Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit..."

&c.

The God of the Founding conforms quite well to "Jehovah," however.
Monotheistic, the one from the Bible. “The Divine Author.”

"May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivered the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors, planted them in a promised land, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of heaven and make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessings of that people whose God is Jehovah."

---G. Washington, Letter to the Savannah Jews

I ordered [the British captain] to deliver to me the fort instantly, who asked me by what authority I demanded it; I answered, "In the name of the great Jehovah ant the Continental Congress."

---Ethan Allen, famous deist

It would be disingenuous to say that the Founders had invented some new One God rather than adapting the existing One God, Jehovah.