The overt Christianity on display at the inauguration of President Barack Obama made more than a few people cringe.
Did a nominally secular ceremony that lasted less than an hour really need an invocation and a benediction? Did the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court really have to inquire “So help you God?” at the end of the constitutionally mandated (and deity-free) oath of office? Did our newly minted president really have to put his hand on a Bible before promising to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution”?
As a matter of tradition, if not law, the answer is yes. John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, took the oath with his left hand on a book of constitutional law, but his symbolic act of secularism remains an aberration almost two centuries later; Theodore Roosevelt is the only modern president to refuse a Bible at his inaugural ceremony.
“So help me God” as a quasi-official part of the inaugural oath has a similarly long history. George Washington supposedly added the words unprompted, but in audio recordings from the 20th century the person administering the oath says “so help me God” after the affirmation.
Chief Justice John Roberts became the first to phrase the end of the oath as a question — “So help you God?” instead of “So help me God” — but I’m not willing to claim that a minor change in verbiage represents the latest assault on our ever-eroding barrier between church and state. I’ll leave such pursuits to atheist and serial lawsuit filer Michael Newdow, whose quixotic attempts to abolish God from the public sphere, however well-intentioned, do little more than provide easy fodder for Bill O’Reilly and his ilk.
Indeed, Barack Obama’s inauguration offered plenty to those of us hoping that his presidency ushers in an era of secularism and religious pluralism.
The mention of “nonbelievers” alongside “Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus” in Obama’s inaugural speech has already garnered ample praise from irreligious types in the media and the academy. His promise to “restore science to its rightful place” strikes a similarly sweet-sounding note to Americans — and doubtless some foreigners as well — disillusioned with the Bush administration’s seeming preference for religious dogma over scientific insights when making policy decisions on issues like climate change and bioethics.
Even the Bible on which Obama took the oath of office presents an important deviation from the story of “America the Christian nation” so favored by the evangelical right. The Bible was used at Lincoln’s first swearing-in and has since become part of the permanent collection at the Library of Congress. Obama became only the second president to take the oath of office on that Bible.
To the extent that any religious tome can assume a secular significance, the Lincoln Bible should be seen as an artifact of American history. Obama selected it not for its contents — which, unsurprisingly, are identical to those of every other Bible — but for its place in America’s historical narrative. Ever the constitutional lawyer, Obama chose for his swearing-in a document first used by the man whose oath of fidelity to the Constitution was tested by civil war and whose memory inspired subsequent leaders to amend the Constitution in favor of equality and justice.
Like every American president of the past and for the foreseeable future, Obama took great pains to establish his Christian bona fides. Atheism and agnosticism remain barriers to supreme executive power, even in the age of Obama. But our new president has at least shown that his Christian faith is largely private. More important, he has deliberately cultivated the public image of a president faithful to the American ideal. By taking his oath of office on the Lincoln Bible, Obama made a symbolic gesture of fidelity to the Constitution and paid respectful homage to the historical figure who defended it most faithfully.
The explicitly Christian prayers bracketing the inauguration ceremony stand as a reminder that the separation between church and state remains a distant ideal. But Obama’s own actions demonstrate a refreshing fidelity to our shared history and carry the promise that his time in office will be marked by a restoration of religion to a primarily private role.
Xan White is a senior in