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Obama’s Inauguration Steeped in Religion

Scholars of presidential rhetoric often compare presidential inaugurations to religious ceremonies, with the occasions serving to reinforce the nation’s civil religious expectations.
Following tradition, President Barack Obama’s inaugural festivities today remain covered with religious garb – from the oath of office to the personalities on the platform to even the fact that the ceremony is being held today.

Although the constitutionally mandated start of Obama’s second term was yesterday, Obama’s inauguration follows the tradition of moving the festivities when the date falls on a Sunday.

Obama’s inauguration marks the seventh time – out of 57 – that the inaugural events moved from Sunday to Monday.

President James Monroe started the tradition by moving his second inaugural from Sunday (March 4) to Monday (March 5).

Three other presidents moved their March 4 inaugurals to March 5 to avoid Sunday festivities: Zachary Taylor in 1849 for his only inauguration, Rutherford Hayes in 1977 for his only inauguration, and Woodrow Wilson for his second inauguration in 1917.

Two presidents have moved their inaugurations to a Monday following the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that shifted inauguration from March 4 to Jan. 20. Dwight D. Eisenhower moved his second inauguration to Jan. 21 in 1957, as did Ronald Reagan with his second inauguration in 1985.

While Monroe and Taylor waited to take the presidential oath of office until Monday, Hayes took the oath privately on Saturday and then again publicly on Monday.

Wilson took the private, official oath on Sunday and then publicly re-enacted the oath on Monday.

Eisenhower, Reagan and Obama all followed Wilson’s example of privately taking the oath on Sunday and then ceremonially repeating it on Monday.

This will be the second time Obama takes the oath of office on two consecutive days.

Since the language of the presidential oath is mandated by the U.S. Constitution, Obama actually took his 2009 presidential oath a second time – on Jan. 21 – after Chief Justice John Roberts said the oath incorrectly during the inaugural ceremony on Jan. 20.

The oath was administered the second time to prevent questioning of Obama’s constitutional authority to enact the powers of the presidency.

As with modern presidential tradition, Obama will likely end his presidential oath with the phrase “So help me, God.”

Although not part of the official language in the U.S. Constitution, many presidents have added this phrase at the end of the oath.

Despite the common belief that George Washington first added this phrase, historians often rate this claim dubious.

In 1881, Chester Arthur likely became the first president to add the phrase “So help me, God” to the oath of office.

Presidents William Taft, Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding (a Baptist) followed suit. Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt similarly added the phrase.

Instead of referencing the divine, Washington instead kissed his Bible – a practice followed by Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and several presidents following Lincoln.

The last president to kiss a Bible at the end of the presidential oath was Harry Truman (a Baptist) in 1949.

Although Obama will not likely kiss a Bible at the end of saying the presidential oath of office, he will take the oath by placing his hand on a stack of two Bibles. One Bible will be the one Abraham Lincoln used for his first inaugural in 1861.

Obama also used that Bible – with its gilded-edged pages and burgundy velvet cover – for his 2009 inauguration. No other president has used the Lincoln Bible for an inauguration.

Following the inauguration, that Bible will be on public display at the Library of Congress.

The other Bible Obama will swear on is one used by Baptist minister Martin Luther King Jr.

Since Obama’s inaugural ceremonies were moved from Sunday to Monday, it coincides with the holiday celebrating the birth of the slain civil rights leader.

King used the black leather Bible as he traveled around the nation preaching and marching.

The only other time a presidential inauguration coincided with the King holiday was the second inaugural for Bill Clinton (a Baptist) in 1997.

For Obama’s private swearing in on Sunday, he used Michele Obama’s family’s Bible.

Following the tradition since 1989, all of the individuals selected to pray at Obama’s inauguration are Protestants.

Although Jewish rabbis were a fixture at several inaugurations after Truman invited one to pray at his 1949 inaugural, one has not prayed at a presidential inauguration since Reagan’s second inauguration in 1985.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of civil rights activist Medgar Evers (who was killed 50 years ago this year), will deliver the invocation.

With her prayer, she will become the first woman and first layperson to pray at a presidential inauguration.

Episcopalian minister Louis León, pastor of Saint John’s Church near the White House, will offer the benediction.

León, whose church is often called the “Church of the Presidents” due to its close connections to many presidents, also prayed at George W. Bush’s second inauguration in 2005.

León was added to the program after the pastor initially chosen withdrew in the midst of controversy.

Louie Giglio, a conservative evangelical popular with students, withdrew after facing criticism from some liberals over a sermon he delivered on homosexuality two decades ago.

In addition to the official prayers, Obama will likely invoke God during his inaugural address, as have most modern presidents.

Obama offered several references to God and religious faith during his first inaugural address in 2009.

“Let it be said by our children’s children that … with eyes fixed on the horizon and God’s grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations,” Obama declared as he made one of several religious references in the speech.

Presidential rhetoric scholars, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, argued in their influential book “Presidents Creating the Presidency,” “Presidents enact the presidential role by placing themselves in God’s hands” and therefore are “not fully invested as president” without religious prayers and statements to complete “the rite of investiture.”

Although the U.S. lacks an official state religion, today’s inauguration of Obama will demonstrate the pervasive influence of civil religious expectations as elements of church and state work together to officially bless the start of the new term.

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.