January 22, 2001
-- Martin E. Marty
No one needs binoculars to do sightings of religion in American public life when a new president comes into view. Presidents signal somethingof their and the nation's acknowledged needs and chosen images by bringingtheir clergy along to inaugurations. The choiceto take the oath ofoffice on the Bible -- often open to a particular verse -- or to cite theBible in an inaugural address signals what someone has called the "religiocification"of the presidential transition, one unmatched in republics elsewhere.
The folks at National Public Radio had me revisit past choices of open-Bibletexts or citations in speeches two days ago. What stands out?
Only one selected passage has ever been explicitly Christian or christological. (Avoiding "through Jesus Christ our Lord" is not a recent secularist invention.) Calvin Coolidge chose John 1, a passage dear to Christians but a problemin a pluralist republic. Several have quoted Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, and two chose Matthew 5, including passages which would see a republic with millions of amputees and no divorcés (see verses 27-30).
Franklin Delano Roosevelt chose the favorite-of-brides passage by Paul in First Corinthians 13 all four times! Proverbs receives inordinateattention and Psalms ordinate attention.
Two themes are implied in most choices. The first is easy. When one becomes president, he (so far, only "he") does not surrender personalfreedom in faith, and thus may bring his private faith into the publiczone, to suggest commitment and, of course, need and hope.
The other implied theme is more complicated. Most of them citethe Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, in large part because there'snot much of governmental import in the New Testament. In these booksthe nation or the people addressed is always the chosen, the elect of God,Israel, which received a special covenant, responsibility, and promise. Whether that does or can easily transfer to any other nation or people,as chief executives by their scriptural choices infer that they do, isa bit more chancy. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, made it work.
Both Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan in this mode chose Second Chronicles7:14, a passage today favored by cultural critics and political agenciesand actors on the right. One translation reads: "If my people, whoare called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my faceand turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and willforgive their sin and will heal their land."
One can say that such passages have import by analogy to modern republics,self-chosen people, as in a nation like ours which has been perceived bymany as "scripted" and "scriptured." But problems of hubris, exclusivism,and misapplication can go with such citations. "Handle with care!"is the warning that critics use bipartisanly on all such occasions.