On Monday the United States will celebrate one of its great festivals of civil religion as Barack Obama is inaugurated for a second time. Although nothing in the Constitution mandates it (the only things the Constitution specifies are the date and the wording of the oath), the ceremony will include an invocation, a benediction, undoubtedly one or more mentions of God in the inaugural address, and the words “so help me God” as part of the oath of office. These words are often attributed to George Washington (he allegedly added them to his oath in 1789, but no extant contemporary evidence proves that he did). The historical record indicates instead that these words were probably first spoken in 1881 by Chester Arthur when he was sworn in following James Garfield’s death. Of the nation’s 56 inaugural addresses, only Washington’s very brief second one (135 words) does not refer to God. All others have invoked His presence, asked for His blessings, and/or celebrated His relationship with the United States.
In addition, on Tuesday morning President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with numerous dignitaries and Americans of varied faiths, will attend a worship service at the Washington National Cathedral, which will include prayers, scriptural readings, and musical performances. The event is not open to the public, but it will be webcast live.
Why do the inauguration festivities include so many religious components? The basic answer is because of our civil religious traditions and the expectations of Americans. Throughout American history our national magistrates, whatever their private religious beliefs, have been guided by America’s civil religion in performing their official duties. Presidents have extensively employed religious rhetoric in various settings for numerous reasons: to express their deepest convictions, help accomplish their purposes, unite and inspire citizens, provide comfort and consolation, stimulate people to take certain actions, justify the nation’s exploits, and hold citizens and the country accountable to transcendent standards.
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