Religion & American politics:

Telling the American story

posted by John Schmalzbauer

Presidential inaugurations are occasions for civil religious drama.  The inauguration of Barack Obama was no exception.  As a sea of humanity filled the Washington mall, Tuesday’s rituals dramatized the tension between “the one and the many” in the American story.  In the past, the priests of American civil religion have tried to include all Americans, though often they have failed miserably.  Obama’s inauguration was both more and less inclusive than previous ceremonies.

On the one hand, an event starring two Protestant ministers cannot begin to capture the diversity of twenty-first century American religion.  Like Franklin Graham and Kirbyjon Caldwell before him, Rick Warren prayed in the name of Jesus.  Though he went out of his way to use the Arabic and Hebrew words for Jesus (“Isa” and “Yeshua”), such language is too close to the rhetoric of Jews for Jesus to sit well with Jewish audiences.  In an era when inaugural prayers have grown more Protestant, his use of the Lord’s Prayer was a sign of the Re-Christianization of American civil religion.

On the other hand, Warren did something that no evangelical figure has ever done on a national stage.  Appropriating a phrase from the Koran, he called God “the compassionate and merciful one.” Coming from a religious community that is deeply suspicious of Islam, Warren’s use of Koranic language was a bold move.  Though his use of the Jewish Shema (“Here O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one”) was less risky, it was another gesture of inclusion.

Evoking more emotion than Warren’s prayer, Aretha Franklin’s performance was shining moment for American civil religion. The daughter of Detroit pastor and activist C.L. Franklin, she brought the look and sound of the black church into the inaugural festivities.  Her hat alone conjured up images of Baptist and Pentecostal crowns on Sunday morning. Like Ray Charles’ rendition of “America the Beautiful,” Franklin’s gospel-inflected “America” proved that old songs can be sung in new ways.

Echoing Franklin, poet Elizabeth Alexander used the metaphor of music to articulate a new vision for American society.  Urging her audience to “sing the names of the dead who brought us here, who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges, picked the cotton and the lettuce, built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of,” she recapitulated the American story in verse.  Were Walt Whitman there to witness it, he would hear America singing.

The voices of African Americans also reverberated in the Reverend Joseph Lowery’s benediction.  Quoting from the Negro National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Lowery began, “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far along the way.” Like George W. Bush’s 2003 quotation from “Power in the Blood,” this was coded language.

By finding “wonder-working power” in the “goodness and idealism and faith of the American people,” Bush substituted national greatness for “the blood of the lamb.” By contrast, Lowery’s prayer did not fundamentally alter the meaning of “Life Every Voice.”  By weaving it into his benediction, Lowery brought the spirituality of the black church into a national ceremony.  Echoing the pacifism of Dr. King, he challenged the nation to embrace the radical message of the Hebrew prophets, asking God’s blessing on those who work “for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.”

Mixing realism and hope, Barack Obama did his part to renew American civil religion.  At a difficult moment in the nation’s history, the new president appealed to what Samuel Huntington once called the “American creed.” In his 1981 book, American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, Huntington argued that times of crisis and turmoil evoke new bursts of “creedal passion.”

Such passion was on display in Obama’s inaugural address.  Noting that “every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms,” he acknowledged a “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable.” Yet he did not stop there, urging a return to America’s ideals as the solution to America’s ills.  Articulating the core tenets of America’s creed, he argued that the “time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.”

Like Elizabeth Alexander, he retold the history of America, praising those who “toiled in sweatshops and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.” Singling out immigrants, farmers, workers, and soldiers, Obama called on Americans to emulate their sacrifices. He also commended the heroes of 9/11, praising “the firefighter’s courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke,” in what sounded like a line from Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising.”

Consistent with previous moments of creedal passion, the incoming president called attention to the gap between America’s ideals and its institutions (what Huntington called the “IvI gap”). Criticizing the “greed and irresponsibility” of some, he blamed the weakening of the economy on “our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” Condemning American unilateralism, Obama called for “sturdy alliances” with other nations, arguing that “our power alone cannot protect us.” Questioning the false choice “between our safety and our ideals,” Obama pledged his commitment to the “rule of law and the rights of man.”

The son of an African immigrant from Kenya and a white anthropologist from Kansas, Barack Obama cannot help but embody a new phase in American civil religion. Having lived in Hawaii, Indonesia, New York, and Chicago, he has experienced the impact of globalization firsthand.  Praising the “patchwork heritage” of America, Obama noted we “are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers . . . shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth.” Noting his own African roots, he reached out “to all the other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born.”

It remains to be seen whether Obama’s administration can narrow the gap between American ideals and American institutions.  Whether he succeeds or fails, Obama will almost certainly expand the scope of American civil religion.  Based on the events of Tuesday’s inauguration, it appears that he already has.

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