Blogs > Cliopatria > Religion and the Inauguration

Jan 25, 2009 4:54 pm

Religion and the Inauguration

Thus far today--and the day is not yet over--more prayers were spoken than at an evangelical meeting. Invocations, benedictions, in duplicate and triplicate.

The day began with President Bush's visit to a church.

During his address he referred to the Author of Liberty, God, and the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

What's going on?

America is being treated to its usual quadrennial outburst of religious pageantry.

Religion has always been a part of inaugurations. Most presidents have ended their address with the words, "so help me God." (FDR forgot in 1933.) All the presidents mentioned God or some vague equivalent in their address. All but J.Q. Adams, Franklin Pierce and Calvin Coolidge put their hand on a bible while taking the oath. (Adams put his hand on a book of laws.)

All but one swore an oath to uphold the Constitution. (Pierce affirmed the oath.) (Only 3 presidents referred explicitly to Christianity, none mentioned Jesus by name.)

But religion is more evident at inaugurations now than in the 19th century.

The change came with FDR. He was the first to go to church inauguration day, the first to include a prayer in his own address, the first to have an invocation and a benediction. FDR ended his last address with a prayer. Ike and Bush I began their addresses with a prayer.

Why the change?

There are a couple of explanations. 1. FDR sensed the momentousness of World War II and felt he needed all the help he could get in rallying public opinion in defense of his policies. (Lincoln, the other president who held office during a similarly challenging period also invoked God more explicitly than other presidents, tailoring his second address to the jeremiads of the old Puritan preachers.)

Ike in the 1950s explicitly included a prayer because he felt the country was becoming materialistic. The more prosperous we became the mre we eagerly embraced public symbols of religion to reinforce our sense of our own worthiness.

And as Susan Jacoby reminded us in a piece published in the NYT the other day, the Supreme Court decision abolishing school prayer in 1962 shocked much of the country, inspiring leaders to compensate by publicly praying.

So don't blame George W. Bush for the religious atmosphere of today's events. They have strong roots in our cultural garden.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Raymond Soller - 8/10/2006

There is no contemporary evidence showing that George Washington added the words, "So help me God" to his Presidential oath. The first such report appears sixty-five years later in the book, "The Republican Court; or, American society in the days of Washington," by Rufus W. Griswold. Griswold vaguely implies that this information came from Washington Irving. Irving repeated this claim four years later in volume iv of his five volume book, "The Life of George Washington."

The first President who is known to have appended those words to the presidentail oath of office is Chester A. Arthur who became the President on 23 September 1881 after the death of President Garfield.

It is a fact that Herbert Hoover said only two words, "I do," after Chief Justice William Howard Taft had presented the Presidential Oath exactly as prescribed by the U. S. Constitution. When FDR was sworn in as President on March 4, 1933 he repeated the words, "So help me God," as prompted by Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes. All Presidents have followed this non-constitutional protocol ever since.

HNN - 1/26/2005

All of the authors I consulted say all the presidents repeated the phrase except FDR, who omitted it by mistake in 1933.

2 presidents dispensed with the bible: JQ Adams took the oath on a book of laws. Coolidge had a bible nearby but did not rest his hand on it (he was following Vt. custom).

Nixon used the bible.

Ed Darrell - 1/26/2005

How would we determine whether a president added the phrase at the end of the speech? We know Washington did, because it was a departure from the written, required oath, and observers noted it. But did Jefferson actually utter the phrase?

My understanding is that at least one president dispensed with the Bible -- Nixon. Can we say with any assurance that Jefferson, Madison, Monroe (especially those three), or Fillmore and Buchanan added the phrase to the end of the oath?