In the days following President Obama’s inauguration address,commentators across the political spectrum have made much about how it overtly expressed a progressive agenda.
It was not only a politically progressive speech, however, it was a masterwork of progressive theology: a public sermon on the meaning of America, a creedal statement and a call to practice that faith in the world. It was an expression of a genuinely pluralistic America, the first inaugural address of a new sort of American civil spirituality.
President Obama is a Christian but made few, if any, direct appeals to religion during his recent campaign. As president, he has a new historical problem when it comes to speaking of faith. Through the twentieth century, presidents were able to craft a generally religious language that addressed America’s three most influential groups-Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. When President Kennedy delivered his inaugural address, it was considered the best public sermon in this tradition of American civil religion.
But the old civil religion is no longer enough. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the percentage of the Christian population has declined as the number of nones, atheists, agnostics, and those adhering to non-Christian religions increased exponentially. In 2011, according to the Pew Forum, the United States became an officially pluralistic religious country for the first time in its history, with no single faith tradition claiming the allegiance of 50 percent of the population. Overtly Judeo-Christian understandings of God are no longer adequate to address and include all of America’s people. President Obama is the first president who, as a Christian person, has to speak to and for the new communities of American faiths.
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