FEATURE STORY: Clinton’s inaugural address as civil-religion sermon

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ In 1789 during his first inaugural address, George Washington offered”fervent supplications”that the”Almighty Being who rules over the universe”would consecrate the new United States of America.

Not quite 75 years later, Abraham Lincoln, in his historic second inaugural address, urged the nation to bind up the wounds caused by the Civil War”with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” And on Inauguration Day 1961, John F. Kennedy asserted that the”rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” When William Jefferson Clinton takes the podium for his second inaugural address next Monday (Jan. 20), listeners can expect to hear allusions to God and the Bible from him as well.

In fact, says Robert D. Linder, professor of history at Kansas State University, if Clinton fails to make some religious references in his inaugural speech,”it would be an extraordinary departure from tradition.” According to Linder, every elected president from Washington to Clinton has made at least one reference to the Deity in his inaugural address.

Scholars say the reason is not because every American president has been extraordinarily pious, but rather, because generalized religious sentiment has always been wrapped up in America’s vision of itself and its mission in the world.

Today, although social changes such as increasing pluralism and secularization are broadening _ some say weakening _ the”one nation under God”notion, the presidential inaugural address is still widely considered to be the chief homily, or sermon, of American civil religion. And according to many observers, Clinton has seriously undertaken the role of”high priest”of the nation’s public religion.

The term”civil religion”was first coined by the French Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. In the late 1960s, American scholars, led by sociologist Robert Bellah, picked up the term again to describe a generic set of religious beliefs, symbols and values that seemed to define and unify American society.”As long as there have been organized societies, religion has always played a part in them. It’s not a denominational religion, but (it) usually combines elements of whatever the dominant faiths are in a particular society,”says Linder, who along with scholar Richard V. Pierard wrote”Civil Religion and the Presidency”(Zondervan/Academie).

Because Christianity has been the dominant faith in America, the public faith or civil religion practiced has been largely Christian, although many of the early presidents, including Washington, Jefferson and Madison, were also strongly influenced by Deist philosophy. Earlier this century, American civil religion gradually broadened to include a more general Judeo-Christian consensus.

More recently, Linder argues that Ronald Reagan, who was adept at using religious imagery, expanded the concept of American civil religion even further to include anyone who believes in any kind of Supreme Being.

For example, Linder cites how Reagan dealt with the space shuttle Challenger disaster, when a Buddhist astronaut was among those killed.”Reagan preached him into civil-religion heaven right along with the others,”Linder says.

In his book”God in the White House”(Collier), Richard G. Hutcheson Jr. asserts that throughout American history, despite the institutional separation of church and state, a”close relationship”has prevailed between religion and culture.”Here presidents have had a positive role, as symbolic high priests of the public religion that has undergirded American life,”Hutcheson writes.”Indeed, they have been the major articulators of the public faith, and their leadership has sustained it in its unifying function,”he adds.

Some presidents have been more comfortable with that role than others.

According to Linder’s analysis, Clinton relishes it, rivaling even Reagan in his use of religious rhetoric.”Clinton is comfortable with religious language in a way that most Democrats are usually not anymore. … He has used religious language more than any Democrat in a long time,”says Kevin Hicks, an Oxford University scholar who has studied the use of religious language by American political parties.

The reason, Linder argues, is because”(Clinton) sees himself as a kind of universal pastor for the entire world and has reached out on a number of occasions beyond the borders of the U.S. in this civil pastoral role.” Linder says Clinton’s”pastoral heart”for counseling and empathy was illustrated by his now-famous”I feel your pain”remark during the 1992 campaign.”Just as a pastor emphasizes certain concerns for the flock, Clinton has consistently done this in his speeches over the last four years, and that includes not only American audiences, but also foreign audiences in various contexts,”Linder says.”The other presidents we’ve had up until now have pretty much confined their roles to the American scene.” Clinton’s first inaugural speech, given on January 21, 1993, contained numerous references to God and Scripture. And he concluded his speech sounding like a revival preacher:”From this joyful mountain top of celebration, we hear a call to service in the valley. We have heard the trumpets. We have changed the guard. And now _ each in our own way, and with God’s help _ we must answer the call.” Pierard, professor of history at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind., says in this year’s inauguration speech, he’ll be looking for Clinton to again use”a very general kind of religious imagery, bringing us all together as Americans, helping us to feel good about America.” But Pierard predicts there will be no mention of Jesus, even though Clinton is personally a Christian.”America has become so religiously pluralistic, it has become very difficult for any president to make any kind of a religious statement that doesn’t offend someone. We’ve been reduced to `God bless you and God bless America,’ and you define who God is,”says Pierard.


Jerry Herbert, director of the American Studies Program of the University of Christian Colleges and Universities, says he, too, expects that Clinton will only go so far in using religious allusions.”There will be God talk, but I certainly don’t expect Lincolnesque God talk that acknowledges divine judgment and a transcendent moral code beyond the individual,”says Herbert.”Even if (Clinton) believes it personally, I don’t think he can afford to say too much publicly because he’d be criticized too much,”Herbert adds.

Herbert and other analysts say the concept of American civil religion is becoming increasingly out-of-date in discussions about modern public philosophy.”People talk about a `good society’ or individual values and character, but not about civil religion,”Herbert says.


Many Americans, including both secularists and fundamentalists, have long objected to a national”lowest common denominator”religion that is actually more patriotism than religious faith. But others say there is still a place for civil religion in American society.”Civil religion is still one of the few things that keeps the country together. … The one thing that Americans agree on more than anything else is that there is a God _ and that’s all that’s required for civil religion these days,”says Linder.


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