Religion in Inaugural Addresses -- Scott Hanson
President Bush's new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives officially opened on February 20 and has touched a nerve in the nation over church-state issues, but it confirmed his commitment to plans hinted at in controversial passages from his inaugural address one month ago. Religious language in presidential inaugural addresses has become increasingly more explicit in the twentieth century, particularly since World War II
By R. Scott Hanson|February 28, 2001
President Bush's new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives officially opened on February 20 and has touched a nerve in the nation over church-state issues, but it confirmed his commitment to plans hinted at in controversial passages from his inaugural address one month ago.
Religious language in presidential inaugural addresses has become increasingly more explicit in the twentieth century, particularly since World War II. Early American presidents -- influenced by Enlightenment philosophy and religious intolerance in Europe -- were quite hesitant, yet very creative, when naming God. Washington referred to "that Almighty Being who rules over the universe," Adams to "the Protector in all ages," and Jefferson to "that Infinite Power." But with Presidents Monroe and Pierce, we see the beginning of a trend with the actual use of "God." Such references then appear in subsequent addresses, steadily increase in the twentieth century, and reach a record high with Reagan in 1985. It has also become almost obligatory since Reagan (1981) to end every address with some combination of "God bless you" and "God bless America" -- a move from asking for, appealing to, or seeking divine guidance to asking God to bless the people and country. Eisenhower (1953) and Bush (1989) even led the people in prayer.
The result of such changes has lent recent addresses an ever more sermon-like quality, with the president as a kind of pastor to the people. But why? Perhaps such language gradually became less taboo, as presidents have felt more and more free to employ it. Or it may also stem from the increasing intimacy of the event. Thanks to the media, inaugurations have 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 takes us in a few new directions. Bush supported the idea of a civil religion by speaking of "Our democratic faith . . . the creed of our country." He also continued the post-war Republican trend of emphasizing moral values such as decency, compassion, character, love, and civility. "Compassion," "character," and "citizen" appeared more than in any other twentieth-century address. Bush gave it all a decidedly Christian framework by linking these to the story of the good Samaritan, and he is one of the first presidents to dip into the New Testament for a scriptural reference.
Even more noteworthy was Bush's attention to organized religion and its role in government when he said, "Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws." No other president has spoken so explicitly about the possible role of religion in the political sphere, and it alarmed those who monitor church-state issues. Similar echoes may 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 worth noting that the address was sandwiched between a very Christian inaugural prayer by evangelist Franklin Graham and an equally Christian benediction by African-American pastor Kerby Jon Caldwell.
In contrast to this sectarian tone, Bush wisely recognized other traditions in America and demonstrated an interesting shift in attitudes on immigration and religious pluralism. He is one of the only presidents to speak positively of immigration: "Every immigrant makes our country more, not less, American." Presidents up to Coolidge (1925) all expressed negative views of immigration, reflecting sentiments of the time that bore fruit in severe immigration restrictions. Bush's statement, along with his inclusion of Islam, reflects changes in the country's religious landscape brought about by massive new immigration since 1965.
Aides to Bush said his address would be "healing," and his unprecedented use of "civility," along with forgiveness and the common good, seemed particularly aimed at doing that. He also briefly thanked former Vice President Gore "for a contest conducted in spirit and ended with grace." In times of great crisis, presidents must find inspiration and guidance to act as a kind of national faith-healer and restore order or hope. Does an inaugural address have that power? Lincoln's second inaugural address did.
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's letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1776, Bush ended his speech by declaring" an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm." But one wonders what Jefferson, who was perhaps most careful to separate civil and religious matters, would think.
R. Scott Hanson is a doctoral candidate in the history of culture at the University of Chicago. His dissertation is entitled "City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, New York."