Obama’s Strong Progressive Inaugural Address Dulled with Religious Music and Rhetoric
By Brian Magee
President Barack Obama’s second inaugural address this week contained an abundance of support for progressive ideas that nearly all humanists accept: economic justice, fortification of science, cooperative action, battling prejudice of all kinds, praise for diversity, acknowledgement of the need to adapt to new circumstances, and the need to act in response to climate change. But the entire ceremony was so saturated with religion in general—Christianity in particular—that the plea for togetherness could rightfully be seen as absurd and deceitful by millions of non-Christian Americans.
Perhaps the most offensive part of the inaugural ceremony to those hoping for a truly inclusive event was the performance of the Christian war song, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” by The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir. This Civil War-era song is an unambiguous celebration of a vengeful warrior god proclaiming the “truth” of the Biblical end time narrative. It is hard to understand how a president who would just a few minutes later insist that we need to do things “as one nation, and one people” approve the performance of a song that declares a Christian god will eventually be “sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat.”
Other music offerings also contained references to a god: James Taylor performed an abbreviated version of "America the Beautiful," which contains the claim about American that “God shed his grace on thee,” and Kelly Clarkson sang "America (My Country 'Tis of Thee)," including a verse not often sung that begins with “Our fathers' God to thee.”
The invocation given by civil rights activist Myrlie Evers-Williams was also Christian, ending with “In Jesus’ name and the name of all who are holy and right we pray,” contradicting the inclusive claim earlier in the prayer “that everyone is included.”
Despite asking that America seize the moment “together,” the president’s inaugural address itself was in line with the rest of the religiously discriminatory program by including multiple god references. He starts off by claiming that the “tenets of our faith” are not something that “binds this nation together,” but claims a few breaths later that “…freedom is a gift from God…” When declaring that equality is an American virtue, he adds that it something that is also true in “the eyes of God.” The president told us that taking care of the planet is something we must do, but only because it is “commanded to our care by God.” He also added that the oath he took was “an oath to God and country,” with the “so help me god” part not being constitutionally mandated.
While the president never mentioned Jesus or the Bible, he is a Christian and took the oath with his hand on a Bible. But he was not taking part in a religious ceremony—or shouldn’t have been. The oath of office doesn’t require any reference to a god and, in fact, the Constitution’s Article VI declares a religious test for holding public office is never to be given. When the person administering the oath of any federal office adds the “so help me God” ending, one could argue that it is a Constitutional violation. Asking a person to make a religious declaration as part of an oath to uphold a document that forbids it is an irony that should stop.
“For we have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges, that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action,” the president said. The “new” realities of today should mean that everyone finally be seen and treated as equals. It’s a shame that this president didn’t see that the nature of his Christian inauguration ceremony starts off his second term with tens of millions of Americans wondering why they were purposely excluded.
Brian Magee is the communications associate for the American Humanist Association.