President-elect Barack Obama has chosen a Bible for the swearing in ceremonies, but not a Bible verse upon which to place his hand.
He has decided to use the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used in 1861.
That symbolic choice fits. As Lincoln freed the slaves, Obama is the long-deferred political manifestation of emancipation. Obama comes fittingly from the land of Lincoln, the state of Illinois. Yet the Lincoln-Obama analogy has its limits. Civil war is not in the wind. Obama discloses a far more robust and transparent Christianity than Lincoln did.
Given Obama’s adult conversion to Christianity and noted Christian practices, many people of faith will watch with interest to see upon which Bible verse he places his hand and whether he cites a biblical passage in his inaugural address.
Over the past 30 years, Republican presidents have not quoted from the Bible in their inaugural addresses. Democratic presidents have done so more often than not. Nonetheless, the Bible has always been present, even though the Constitution does not require the use of the Bible.
In 1977, Jimmy Carter took the oath of office on a Bible that his mother had given him. He quoted Micah 6:8: “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”
In both 1981 and 1985, Ronald Reagan failed to quote from the Bible in his inaugural address, a surprise given his rise to power with the aggressive endorsement of Christian conservatives.
At both inaugurations, Reagan placed his hand on a family Bible opened to 2 Chronicles 7:14: "If my people, which are called by my name, will humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land."
In 1989, George H. W. Bush used George Washington’s Bible and had his hand on Matthew 5, the beginning chapter of the Sermon on the Mount. While he did not quote a biblical text, he did offer a seven-sentence prayer at the beginning of his address.
In 1993 at the close of his inaugural address, Bill Clinton quoted Galatians 6:9: “And let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not.”
As in his first inauguration, Clinton’s hand in 1997 rested on a King James Version of the Bible given to him by his grandmother. The Bible was opened to Isaiah 58:12: “And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in.” However, Clinton did not quote from scripture in his address.
Neither in 2001 nor in 2005 did George W. Bush quote directly from the Bible. On both occasions, he used a family Bible, which was closed in the first inauguration and opened in the second to Isaiah 40:31: “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”
Bush did refer in 2005 to “the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount, the words of the Koran, and the varied faiths of our people.”
Presidential precedence gives Obama little direction and great discretion about the use of the Bible in his inauguration.
While he has announced his choice of a Bible, people of faith await his use of the Bible. We will watch to see if he in fact will cite a text. Will the Bible be opened or closed? If the Bible is opened, upon which passage will he place his hand?
Commendable texts include Luke 4:18-19, which contains Jesus’ moral vision of economic restoration—good news to the poor, the powerless and the marginalized. In an age of economic deterioration, a moral word about economic restoration would be suitable.
Another text is Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.” Imagine an administration that actually had that passage as its North Star.
Amos 5:24, of course, calls for justice to roll down like a mighty river into what was a parched land. The imagery bears painful similarities to our land: one in which moral commitments are artificial, greed is a way of life and marketplace corruption crushes the poor.
Perhaps Matthew works, a text in which Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That moral imperative is one that finds common ground among Jews, Muslims and Christians.
What passage would you commend to the president-elect?
Robert Parham is executive director of the BaptistCenter for Ethics.