Inspiration and Inclusion at the Inauguration

January 23rd, 2013

The inauguration of a president is inspirational in many ways.

The national colors and anthems, pomp and circumstance can fill spectators with patriotic joy, marveling at our democracy and the peaceful transfer of power we too often take for granted. But there is also the religious inspiration we find woven throughout the events of the day, from cries for and claims of God’s blessing in our patriotic songs, to the silent witness of Bibles on which the elected ones make their oaths, to overt mention of the divine in our leaders’ speeches.

Inaugurations have opened and closed with prayer since 1933, and many religious elements have been part of the day since the days of George Washington—taking the oath with one’s hand on a Bible, for example, and making mention of God in the inaugural address. Ending the oath with the phrase “so help me God” is not constitutionally part of the oath but was added spontaneously by Washington—and then by every subsequent holder of the office as a matter of tradition. From these “matters of tradition,” one could conclude that either our nation is devotedly Christian or that civil religion is so ingrained in our culture as to render such symbolic nods to faith meaningless.

In spite of those who say such religious elements—symbolic as they may be—have no place in national ceremonies such as the presidential inauguration, their presence is still a tacit requirement. (Who would be the president so foolish as to offend the nation’s religious majority, regardless of how he or she interprets the First Amendment?) With items like Bibles and prayers essentially non-negotiable, the questions are not “Bible or no Bible?” but “whose Bible?” and not “prayer or no prayer?” but “whose prayer?”

The answers to those questions this year evoked an inaugural theme fitting to both the national holiday with which the inauguration coincided (Martin Luther King Day) and the policies and priorities of the administration being sworn in for the second time: inclusion, freedom, and equality.

President Obama chose two Bibles on which to take the oath this time around. In addition to the Lincoln Bible, on which he took his oath in 2008, he also used a Bible of Martin Luther King, Jr. The symbolism of freedom and equality, harkening to both Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (150 years ago this month) and the 20th century fight for civil rights led by Dr. King, was rich, and evoked further in Obama’s speech, in which he called for equality for women, immigrants, and most controversially, “our gay brothers and sisters.”

It was this inclusion of gay rights that marks the inclusiveness of this inauguration as historic, even for progressive administrations. The issue first made news a few weeks before the inauguration when liberal advocacy group Think Progress challenged the White House’s inclusion of Atlanta pastor Louis Giglio in the inauguration lineup because of a sermon Giglio preached in the mid-1990s against homosexuality. Giglio, who was chosen to give the benediction primarily because of his advocacy against modern-day slavery, graciously bowed out of the festivities so that the controversy would not steal focus.

The benediction was instead given by Rev. Luis León of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., who delivered the invocation at George W. Bush’s second inaugural. Fitting for the day, León evoked Martin Luther King’s “Beloved Community” in his benediction, asking that God would bless us to not be ruled by prejudice or by fear of those who are different.

León’s denomination, the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., voted in July to approve the blessing of same-sex ceremonies, and the Washington National Cathedral announced earlier this month that it would begin hosting weddings for same-sex couples now that gay marriage is legal in the District of Columbia and the neighboring state of Maryland. The Cathedral was host to the traditional Inauguration Prayer Service, held on Tuesday, and included for the first time a gay clergyperson, Rev. Nancy L. Wilson of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, a largely LGBT denomination.

Selection of the pastors who will represent the nation or speak to the nation at the inaugural events is clearly a fraught political decision, calling for diversity but also a reflection of the core values of the administration being honored. In the case of Obama’s second inauguration, the emphasis on inclusion and freedom shone through.

Kansas pastor Adam Hamilton, of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, was chosen to deliver the sermon at Tuesday’s prayer service. Leader of the largest church in the nation’s second largest Protestant denomination, Hamilton is known as a voice of moderation in American Christianity. While people lauded and criticized the President’s inaugural address the day before for its policy-related content, Hamilton offered perhaps a centering balance to debates that divide America and American Christians in particular.

Instructed only that his sermon should be “spiritual, inspiration, and inclusive,” Hamilton focused his message on Moses, the emancipator of Israel so many centuries before Lincoln, King, or any leader who fights for freedom today. Like Moses, Hamilton said, we need a leader who can cast a vision for America that unites and drives us forward.

“We’re in need of a new common national vision,” Hamilton said. “Not one that is solely Democratic or solely Republican.  We need one or two goals or dreams that Americans on both sides of the aisle can come together and say, ‘Yes, that’s what it means to be American. That’s where we need to go.’”

The inspirational aspects of presidential inaugurations are difficult to divorce from the partisanship that landed one administration on the dais over another, but we evoke a Higher Power amidst all the nostalgia and policy to call us all to a higher goal than what we’ve achieved as a nation under leaders of all persuasions before this time.

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