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Inaugurating change in inaugurations
By George A. Ricker

Here is a press report I would love to see coming from our nation’s capitol on January 20, 2009.

(Washington, D.C) President Barack Obama took the oath of office as the 44th president of the United States of America in a simple inauguration ceremony that was notable for a lack of religiosity and an emphasis on our nation’s democratic values. Obama affirmed his commitment to uphold the Constitution of the United States by taking the oath as written in that document, without religious embellishment. He was sworn with his hand on a bound copy of the Constitution, signifying, according to his inaugural press release, the new president’s “deep and abiding conviction that our national government is dedicated to serving the needs of the people and the republic and not the dogmas of any religion.” Also absent from this year’s inaugural was any religious invocation or prayer.

Of course, none of that is going to happen this time around. Barack Obama has given no indication that he will forswear the overt religiosity of his predecessors when it comes to public functions. A religious man himself, he seems no less likely than George W. Bush to invoke the deity at the first sign of trouble or to call the nation to prayer in difficult times. He may not be quite as willing to cater to the Religious Right on some issues, and he may be a little less susceptible to the dogmatic rhetoric of some Christians, but he is unlikely to offer much assistance in repairing the wall of separation between government and religions that has been so grievously damaged over the last half century.

Indeed, Obama’s inaugural activities will feature invocations from several members of the clergy at various events, a couple of church services, a post-inaugural prayer service at the National Cathedral and, no doubt, numerous prayers and solicitations by various functionaries. At least one congressman has taken it upon himself to have two clergymen conduct an unofficial service consecrating a door through which the new president must pass on his way to his inauguration. It seems apparent the inauguration will be awash in religion and religious references. Most of what happens will occur not because of any outcry on the part of the American people to have more religion injected into their public ceremonies but because it is almost as hard for a politician to abandon an outworn and unnecessary ritual as to repeal a bad law. Instead, they prefer to tinker. Thus, they ensure that bad precedent will be overtaken by the truly awful.

And that’s too bad. Imagine what would happen if a newly elected president chose, without fanfare, to dispense with all religious rhetoric during his inauguration. There is, after all, no legal requirement for an invocation. There is no reference to a deity in the oath of office prescribed in the U.S. Constitution. Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that President George Washington began the practice of adding “so help me God” after reciting the oath, but it is not in the Constitution itself and is not required as part of the oath. Washington’s use of the phrase has been called into question by more recent scholarship. There is no evidence he said it, and given his penchant for allusions like “Builder of the Universe” and so on, it may be highly unlikely.

Washington also is credited with starting the practice of placing his left hand on the Bible while taking the oath of office. Custom has it that our nation’s first president, who was a Freemason himself, used a Masonic Bible, one that has since been used in other inaugural ceremonies as well. But just as there is no mention of a deity in the oath of office, so is there no mention of a requirement to swear that oath with one’s hand on any sort of holy book.

As for prayer services, sermons and prayers, appearances at cathedrals, churches, synagogues or any other religious edifices, such things are extraneous to the event and are required by nothing in the law or the nature of the office. The president holds the highest civic office in the nation. He is the only national leader who, supposedly, represents all of us. He is not elected to lead us in prayer, and his religious opinions have no legal force and carry no official sanction. Our president holds a position that is secular in nature. The person who occupies that office should ensure an absence of any sectarian entanglements.

Now I do want to be clear about something. I do not think it is unconstitutional for a president to have an invocation or even a prayer as part of the inaugural ceremony. Nor do I think it unconstitutional for a president to say “so help me God” at the end of the oath or to use a Bible as part of the ceremony. If such actions reflect the genuine religious opinions of the person being inaugurated, then we must allow they are certainly permissible. While it would be unconstitutional to force a newly elected president to submit to such things, it also would be unconstitutional to ban their use. In my view, the establishment clause of the First Amendment, and the provisions of Article VI of the Constitution, prohibits any law requiring a public official to perform any religious act in order to take office. The free exercise clause of the First Amendment, however, bars any law prohibiting someone taking office from adding religious embellishments if he or she chooses to do so. The same Constitution that supposedly protects us from “an establishment of religion” by government also protects the right of government officials to freely exercise their own religions.

However, the inauguration of a new president only comes around every four years. It is the most public rite associated with our democratic system of governance. Only our president and vice president are elected nationally. They alone are thought to represent all the citizenry of this nation. Since millions of those citizens have no belief in any sort of god, and many millions more follow no religions, presidential inaugurations ought to be conducted from a secular perspective. There is no requirement, and no good reason, to inject religions into the process. Ample opportunities exist for those about to take office to meet their own religious needs by attending private services either before or after the event. Civic rites and ceremonies are not enhanced by the inclusion of religion. Such practices may alienate not only those who believe in no gods and those who follow no religions, but also those who worship a different god and follow a different religion than the one invoked in such ceremonies. When efforts are made to dilute religious content and make it innocuous, those who do believe in a particular god or a particular religion may be offended by such tampering. Regardless of the constitutionality of such inclusions, a president who aspires to lead all of the people ought to insist on an inaugural service that treats each of them with equal respect. Clearly, religious content separates some of us from the rest of us. It does not unify but divides.

Consider all the controversy that has been generated by the selection of a particular pastor to offer the invocation. A president who has spoken so eloquently about uniting us as a people would have been better served to have kept religion out of, at least, the inauguration ceremony itself. It matters little whether the invocation is offered by Rick Warren or anyone else. The truth of the matter is there is no clergyman out there who will be regarded as a good choice by everyone. Sectarian religions may tolerate other competitors in the religious marketplace, but they show little tolerance for the beliefs of others. Clearly, those of us who worship no gods and follow no religions would feel more comfortable with a ceremony that was totally secular in nature.

This is not, by the way, an effort to drive religion off the stage altogether. I have no quarrel with anyone practicing his or her religion. If a president wants to participate in a religious service before or after the inauguration, that is fine with me. If a president wants to join in a prayer service, that is also no problem where I am concerned. I knew Barack Obama was a religious man when I voted for him. I do not expect him to abandon his faith as the price of taking office.

However, a president must understand the difference between private beliefs and public actions. The inaugural service, in particular, ought to be conducted for the nation entire. It ought not be orchestrated so as to please the personal beliefs of this or that constituency. Rather it should satisfy the requirements of equal treatment in a civil society. There is no good reason to inject religion into the inauguration of the secular head of our secular government. There are some very good reasons to leave religion out of the ceremony altogether.

An inauguration ought to be about our shared values as citizens of the United States of America. It ought to celebrate our public virtues. It ought to honor the commitment to democratic values and recognize the rights and responsibilities of each of us. Because it follows our only national election, the inauguration of a president is uniquely a celebration of the power of “we the people” in choosing the individual who will serve our nation for the next four years. It is a rite of democratic government, and sectarian religion has no legitimate place in it.

© 2009 by George A. Ricker

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