The Blog

One Inauguration, Under God

A day for democracy and prayer.

11:00 PM, Jan 19, 2009 • By JOSEPH C. SMITH JR. and TARA ROSS
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AT LEAST ONE prominent atheist wanted even more "change" than Barack Obama promised on the campaign trail. Michael Newdow, most famous for his efforts to have "Under God" removed from the Pledge of Allegiance, recently asked a federal court to prohibit certain religious references in Obama's inauguration ceremony on January 20.

Newdow needed a small miracle to succeed. He did not get it. His claims were rejected this past Thursday, just as they were the last time he tried this stunt -- when George W. Bush took his second oath of office in 2005. Obama's inauguration ceremony will include an invocation, a benediction, and a request that he conclude his oath with the familiar phrase, "so help me God."

Obama will also surely follow in the footsteps of all his predecessors by mentioning God, offering a prayer, or asking others to pray in his inaugural address. Indeed, the consistency with which all of the presidents have discussed God and invoked God's blessings in their inaugural addresses confirms the role of faith in American public life.

It may surprise some modern-day readers to learn that all of the presidents until now -- even Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase "separation of church and state" in its American constitutional context -- have referenced God in their inaugural addresses. Indeed, it was Jefferson who concluded one of his inaugural addresses by exhorting Americans "to join in supplications with me" to God.

The next president, James Madison, continued the tradition, obviously not finding such statements at odds with the First Amendment -- a provision that he helped draft. Madison urged Americans to place confidence in "that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic." Americans have a duty, he concluded, to take religious action: "[W]e are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplications and best hopes for the future."

In this respect, both Jefferson and Madison followed in the footsteps of the Father of the Country, George Washington, who took the first presidential oath of office upon a Bible, spontaneously kissing it afterwards. Some historians believe that he concluded his oath with the words "so help me God." No contemporaneous evidence for that assertion exists, but such a spontaneous addition would not have been surprising. The religious language in Washington's first inaugural was strong, noting that "it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official Act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe."

Does the increased religious diversity of the nation render Washington's, Jefferson's, Madison's and other presidents' examples outdated? Modern proponents of "separation" seem to think so. (Surely they aren't accusing the founding generation of violating the Constitution that it wrote and ratified!)

Admittedly, Americans were more universally Christian in the late 1700s than they are today. Some questions regarding the intersection of faith and government have therefore become more challenging than they were 200 years ago. But even Washington grappled with religious diversity, including not just rivalrous Protestant sects, but also Roman Catholics, Jews and even Muslims in early America. American presidents ever since have faced the same issue, yet all of them have persevered in their public and official entreaties to God on behalf of our country.

Perhaps the starkest division occurred during the tenure of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln knew that both Northern and Southern Americans believed that God was on their side and would deliver victory in the Civil War. He tackled the issue head-on in his second inaugural address: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered." Lincoln nevertheless sought divine help: "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away."

Perhaps President-elect Obama sees similar divisions in need of healing today. He plans to take his oath of office on the Bible used during Lincoln's first inauguration.

Newdow and other modern atheists would like to believe that a constitutional "separation of church and state" requires religious faith to be excised from all aspects of public life, even presidential inaugurations. But all of the American presidents to date, judging from their inaugural addresses, disagree. To the contrary, they have used their inaugurals as opportunities to pray, to urge Americans to pray, and to celebrate the religious roots of our nation.