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The civil religious cleansing of Washington

The Biden inauguration sought a restoration.

President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(RNS) — The very moment Donald Trump ended his little goodbye party at Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday (Jan. 20), Joe Biden emerged from Blair House to begin the civil religious cleansing of the nation’s capital.

In a classic account of Memorial Day in a New England town, anthropologist W. Lloyd Warner describes how each religious community would start the day with a service in its own place of worship before convening collectively. So, for Biden, the first stop was an inaugural Mass at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, headquarters of Roman Catholicism in Washington.

Then it was off to the U.S. Capitol, which two Wednesdays before had been overrun by pro-Trump rioters in what was widely called an act of desecration. The ceremony that took place there on Inauguration Day can be considered a reconsecration.

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In his invocation, the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, former president of Georgetown University, called Americans “a people of many races, creeds and colors, national backgrounds, cultures and styles” and asked God to “reconcile the people of our land.” In his benediction, the Rev. Silvester Beamon, a African Methodist Episcopal Church pastor from Delaware, twice called on God to “make friends of our enemies” and concluded “in the strong name of our collective faith.”

“We seek harm to none and harmony for all,” declared youth poet laureate Amanda Gordon.

Along the way, Lady Gaga belted out a traditionalist rendering of “The Star Spangled Banner,” Jennifer Lopez mashed Woody Guthrie’s progressive anthem “This Land is Your Land” into “America,” and Garth Brooks tipped his inaugural Stetson to evangelical recusants with “Amazing Grace.”

The figure at the core of the American Civil Religion (ACR) is Abraham Lincoln, who in his unsurpassable Second Inaugural called on his fellow citizens to “bind up the nation’s wounds.” So, in his address, Biden invoked “unity,” his campaign theme, no fewer than eight times.

As Lincoln made clear that the price for slavery had to be paid in full, so Biden acknowledged the “rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.” 

And Biden hearkened directly to Lincoln’s statement in signing the Emancipation Proclamation: “If my name ever goes down into history it will be for this act and my whole soul is in it.” Said Biden, “My whole soul is in it.”

After a brief meet-and-greet with congressional leaders, it was off to Arlington National Cemetery, the central shrine of ACR. Standing before a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with his new vice president, Kamala Harris, Biden discreetly crossed himself and gave a military salute.  

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Finally, he proceeded to the White House, which within the space of five hours had been deep-cleaned to rid it of any traces of the pandemic that, under Trump, had ranged through its halls. The walls had already been hung with new pictures, the Oval Office redecorated, and a bust of Cesar Chavez placed on the Resolute Desk. 

According to the King James Version of the Bible, after the Maccabees drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple, “They decked also the forefront of the temple with crowns of gold, and with shields; and the gates and the chambers they renewed, and hanged doors upon them. Thus was there very great gladness among the people, for that the reproach of the heathen was put away.”

The American Civil Religion, like all religions, can be sanctimonious and superficial, an enterprise of lip service and self-glorification. But when needed most it can give balm to the soul and an important reminder, if not a restoration, of the nation’s best self.

On January 20, 2021, it was very much needed and, thanks to Joe Biden, it rose to the occasion.