February 28, 2001
Religion in Inaugural Addresses
-- Scott Hanson
President Bush's new White House Office of Faith-Based and CommunityInitiatives officially opened on February 20 and has touched a nerve inthe nation over church-state issues, but it confirmed his commitment toplans hinted at in controversial passages from his inaugural address onemonth ago.
Religious language in presidential inaugural addresses has become increasinglymore explicit in the twentieth century, particularly since World War II. Early American presidents -- influenced by Enlightenment philosophy andreligious intolerance in Europe -- were quite hesitant, yet very creative,when naming God. Washington referred to "that Almighty Being whorules over the universe," Adams to "the Protector in all ages," and Jeffersonto "that Infinite Power." But with Presidents Monroe and Pierce,we see the beginning of a trend with the actual use of "God." Suchreferences then appear in subsequent addresses, steadily increase in thetwentieth century, and reach a record high with Reagan in 1985. It has also become almost obligatory since Reagan (1981) to end every addresswith some combination of "God bless you" and "God bless America" -- a movefrom asking for, appealing to, or seeking divine guidance to asking Godto bless the people and country. Eisenhower (1953) and Bush (1989) evenled the people in prayer.
The result of such changes has lent recent addresses an ever more sermon-likequality, with the president as a kind of pastor to the people. Butwhy? Perhaps such language gradually became less taboo, as presidentshave felt more and more free to employ it. Or it may also stem fromthe increasing intimacy of the event. Thanks to the media, inaugurationshave moved from the confines of Congress (last with J.Q. Adams in 1825)to radio (Coolidge, 1925) and then finally to television (Truman, 1949).
George W. Bush's address further strengthens these conclusions and takesus in a few new directions. Bush supported the idea of a civil religionby speaking of "Our democratic faith . . . the creed of our country." He also continued the post-war Republican trend of emphasizing moral valuessuch as decency, compassion, character, love, and civility. "Compassion,""character," and "citizen" appeared more than in any other twentieth-centuryaddress. Bush gave it all a decidedly Christian framework by linkingthese to the story of the good Samaritan, and he is one of the first presidentsto dip into the New Testament for a scriptural reference.
Even more noteworthy was Bush's attention to organized religion andits role in government when he said, "Church and charity, synagogueand mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honoredplace in our plans and in our laws." No other president has spokenso explicitly about the possible role of religion in the political sphere,and it alarmed those who monitor church-state issues. Similar echoesmay be found in Bush's book *A Charge to Keep*, in which he relates his"born-again" experience and alludes to such plans. It is also worthnoting that the address was sandwiched between a very Christian inauguralprayer by evangelist Franklin Graham and an equally Christian benedictionby African-American pastor Kerby Jon Caldwell.
In contrast to this sectarian tone, Bush wisely recognized other traditionsin America and demonstrated an interesting shift in attitudes on immigrationand religious pluralism. He is one of the only presidents to speakpositively of immigration: "Every immigrant makes our country more, notless, American." Presidents up to Coolidge (1925) all expressed negativeviews of immigration, reflecting sentiments of the time that bore fruitin severe immigration restrictions. Bush's statement, along withhis inclusion of Islam, reflects changes in the country's religious landscapebrought about by massive new immigration since 1965.
Aides to Bush said his address would be "healing," and his unprecedenteduse of "civility," along with forgiveness and the common good, seemed particularlyaimed at doing that. He also briefly thanked former Vice PresidentGore "for a contest conducted in spirit and ended with grace." Intimes of great crisis, presidents must find inspiration and guidance toact as a kind of national faith-healer and restore order or hope. Does an inaugural address have that power? Lincoln's second inaugural addressdid.
Bush may have failed to heal deep divisions over a very unusual election,as he did not refer to it directly. Recycling words from John Page'sletter to Thomas Jefferson in 1776, Bush ended his speech by declaring"an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm." Butone wonders what Jefferson, who was perhaps most careful to separate civiland religious matters, would think.
R. Scott Hanson is a doctoral candidate in the history of culture atthe University of Chicago. His dissertation is entitled "City ofGods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, New York."