R. Scott Hanson: Presidents as Pastors in Chief -- An Update on Religion in Inaugural Addresses

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: religion, presidents, R. Scott Hanson, inaugural addresses, Martin Marty Center

R. Scott Hanson teaches history and religion at Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania and is the author of City of Gods: Religious Freedom, Immigration, and Pluralism in Flushing, Queens -- New York City, 1945-2001 (New York: NYU Press, under review).

It did not receive much attention on Monday, January 21 during President Obama’s second inauguration, but some were alarmed when the reporter at the private pre-inaugural worship service at St. John’s Episcopal Church noted that Rev. Andy Stanley, who gave the sermon, referred to the President as “Pastor in Chief.” In an interview with Christianity Today several days after the inauguration, Stanley said his remark had been taken out of context by some reporters, clarifying that it had come from being impressed by the President’s visit with families after the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. Stanley had said, "Mr. President, I don't know the first thing about being President, but I know a bit about being a pastor. And during the Newtown vigil on December 16th after we heard what you did—I just want to say on behalf of all of us as clergy, thank you." And added, "I turned to Sandra [Stanley’s wife] that night and said, 'Tonight he's the Pastor in Chief.'" Other commentators also referred to President Obama as pastor in chief after being moved by his separate visits with each family who lost a child and by his speech to those gathered in mourning.

Later on Monday, President Obama’s inaugural address did even more to cast him as Pastor in Chief with his use of religious language and themes. He used the word “God” five times (and twice more with “His” and “He”), which is just short of Reagan’s record of eight in 1985. Obama also mentioned “our creed” five times, giving the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence significance as a kind of civil religion. Finally, he ended by saying, “Thank you, God Bless you, and may He forever bless these United States of America.”

It may strike some as alarming that the president would be referred to as a Pastor in Chief or that he would make frequent use of religious language in such a public ceremony, but this association is something President Obama shares with many of his recent predecessors. Religious language in presidential inaugural addresses has become increasingly more explicit in the twentieth century, particularly since World War II.

As I reported in an earlier Sightings column in 2001, The earliest American presidents came from Protestant backgrounds but were heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophy as young men and were Deists by the time they entered politics. Since their generation had made the separation of church and state a fundamental American principle they were quite hesitant, and very creative, when naming God. Washington referred to "that Almighty Being who rules over the universe," Adams to "the Protector in all ages," and Jefferson to "that Infinite Power." But with Presidents Monroe and Pierce, we see the beginning of a trend with the actual use of "God." Lincoln mentioned God six times in his second inaugural address (and eight more times with He, His, the Almighty, and the Lord), and he was daring in his use of Scripture to judge the Confederacy near the end of the Civil War. Such references to God then appear in subsequent addresses, steadily increase in the twentieth century, and reach a record high with Reagan in 1985.

It has also become almost obligatory since Reagan (1981) to end every inaugural address (and State of the Union address now, too) with some combination of "God bless you" and "God bless America"—a move from asking for, appealing to, or seeking divine guidance to asking God to bless the people and country. Eisenhower (1953) and George H. W. Bush (1989) even led the people in prayer. George W. Bush, who was well known for his “born-again” evangelical Christian background, also caused a stir when he alluded to plans in his 2001 inaugural address to begin an Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives (renamed the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships by President Obama). At the same time, Bush and Obama were careful to be inclusive of other world religions in their addresses, and Obama also made room for “non-believers” in his first inaugural address. Obama's second address took place on MLK Day, and some were reminded of an oratorical style that reflects the prophetic black preaching tradition of someone like King.

The result of such changes has lent recent addresses an ever more sermon-like quality, with the president as a kind of pastor to the people. But why? Perhaps such language gradually became less taboo, as presidents have felt more and more free to employ it. Or it may also stem from the increasing intimacy of the event. Thanks to the media, inaugurations have moved from the confines of Congress (last with J.Q. Adams in 1825) to radio (Coolidge, 1925) and then finally to television (Truman, 1949). Founding fathers like Jefferson and Madison would no doubt be very pleased by President Obama’s powerful reinterpretation of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution for our times, but it is likely they would be uncomfortable with the label of pastor in chief and the common trend among recent presidents to employ more explicit religious language in their addresses.

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