Thought of the Week: Um…They Actually Prayed?

I’m going to apologize upfront, in case this twangs anybody’s strings. I should also point out that I don’t subscribe to any religious faith; it’s not something I give a whole lot of thought to, and I really don’t much care what people believe – to each their own. I also had to do a lot of rush research for this, so I may have a whole bunch of things wrong. Sorry about that, too.

So…that’s out of the way.


President Barack Obama

Today was the inauguration ceremony for President Barack Obama. I kind of like him; he’s got presence and charisma, and I personally reckon he’s done some pretty good stuff, especially for the underprivileged. I also think George Bush Jr. did some okay things too; I don’t agree with a lot of the actions he chose to pursue, but he did a brilliant job of reassuring and uniting the general public of the United States after the frankly terrifying attacks on September 11, 2001.

The honest truth is that I just don’t care for politics much. I’m pretty okay with whatever those guys decide; in the end, someone’s always going to benefit and someone’s going to get screwed. Unless something radical like forced conscription is proposed, I’m happy to leave pretty much well alone.

But then today, I saw something that kind of took me aback.

Today was the first time I’ve ever had the chance to see a presidential inauguration. Having left the States at the age of 8 and only returned two years ago, it was never even a consideration for me. To be honest, I didn’t even really watch that much of it (my wife had it on TV, or I wouldn’t have thought to); I thought Kelly Clarkson and Beyoncé were entertaining, Barack was inspiring as always; that poet guy had a wonderful poem and read it appallingly. I was really just catching bits of it here and there.

Reverend Luis Leon

Reverend Luis Leon

And then, I noticed that there was a reverend up on stage. I thought, “what?”. Apparently he was giving a benediction, and something twigged in the back of my mind about the separation of church and state; this just didn’t seem appropriate to me.

So I did a bit of digging, and surprised myself with some of the history of religion and politics in the United States. Given the long-standing supposition that, in the United States, the church is not influential in the governing of the country, the inclusion of religion – specifically Christian-faith religion – in the inaugural ceremony struck me as out of place. It turns out that inaugural prayers have only been included in presidential inaugurations since Franklin Roosevelt’s in 1937. Prior to that, any religious ceremony – as far back as George Washington – was kept strictly private (I believe Obama attended a similar service this morning, which as far as I mind is fine – he has every right to attend church if he wishes to).

In fact, there was very little reference to god or religion at all in the early days of the United States. The presidential oath itself makes no reference to such:

I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.

US Quarter

US Quarter

It is suggested that George Washington added the words “so help me god” to his inaugural speech, but this seems to be unsubstantiated; nonetheless, it has somehow worked its way into the ceremony to such an extent that it is now thought of as part of the oath itself.

Even more interesting is the near-ubiquitous mention of god on all US currency. The words “In God We Trust” are inscribed or printed on nearly all US coins and bills. The history of this little phrase itself is pretty interesting; apparently the first use of it is in The Star-Spangled Banner, whose own history is fascinating. The song started life merely as a poem called The Defense of Fort McHenry; it was later set to a popular British tune, which led to its widespread popularity. The song, however, contains only one couplet referring to god at all:

Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,

And this be our motto: In God is our trust.

United States Seal

United States Seal

This, of course, is in an entirely non-state-related poem written from a personal perspective about a military victory. Its use in government comes in much, much later; it was President Herbert Hoover who signed it in as the United States’ official national anthem in 1931. From this poem cum song cum anthem came a petition from a protestant reverend during the US Civil War to acknowledge god on US currency. The Civil War had raised religious sentiments among both parties, and Congress passed the bill allowing this change to the currency. This became such an ingrained part of the culture that, in 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower chose it to replace the United States motto that had prevailed for 180 years: E pluribus unum (Out of many, one).

It could almost be argued, then, that it was this specific action that defined the United States as specifically a religion-based country. It’s interesting, tracing this history, to see how religion has slowly crept its way into US culture from a beginning that was explicitly secular, to the point now where religion is ingrained into state-run functions, actions and events.

Now, going back to the separation of church and state. This seems to stem specifically from the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and it’s interesting to note that it explicitly states that religion cannot be the basis for any law or government decision:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;

The implication of this seems pretty clear: the US government won’t interfere with your choice of religion, nor how you choose to practice it. And this actually seems pretty good, and pretty fair. However, what isn’t said is equally interesting. Nowhere does it suggest that the United States as a country is not religious; merely that, even if it is, it won’t impose that religion on anyone else.

So…what is it, then, when religious ceremonies are practiced at the inauguration of a United States president? Is it a demonstration of religious faith by the leader of the entire country? If so, is that then an imposition on the people to have such worship displayed – publicly — during quite possibly the most significant government ceremony of the United States? Should I, as a non-religious person, take exception to the fact that, if I wish to watch the official recognition of the leader of my country, I will subjected to such religious displays?

I don’t think there is necessarily a black and white decision about this; I would very much like to see such ceremonies toned back or removed from these public events, for no other reason than I can’t see their relevance to what is happening. Does swearing an oath with your hand on a bible make it any more binding? Would not having a benediction have damaging consequences on the next four years of US progress?

But…this is my opinion. After all – to each their own.

Hmm. What do you think?

Note: I’m aware that the vast majority of my references link to Wikipedia; I apologize, but I really didn’t have time to dig into the original source material.

6 thoughts on “Thought of the Week: Um…They Actually Prayed?

  1. Interesting and thought provoking post. Personally, I tend to avoid both politics and religion. Both have a way of completely muddying the waters. I didn’t watch any of the inaugaration. I would veer toward the camp that leans on “seperation of church and state” so I would prefer not to have those ceremonies included. How much of an outrage do you think there would have been if the president was, oh, just to go to the extreme, a practicing wiccan and he undertook a ritual during the inaugaration? I’d imagine we’d never hear the end of it.

    • It’s an area I pretty much steer well clear of as well, but I was just so surprised. I’m used to coronations containing religious aspects, but that’s a personal, family affair – if the royal family are practicing Christians (or whatever), that’s their affair; they aren’t implicated in government decisions.

      It doesn’t really bother me that much – it was just unexpected.

  2. Very interesting post. I didn’t even know that the star-spangled banner was not old. I though it was the original national anthem since beginning (ignorant me)…
    I cannot agree more, that the religious ceremonies should be kept out of any state affairs. I’ve seen it also here in Sweden, that every time they new prime minister is elected and government is set, there is some priest there all the time.
    If the country strives for equality of all its citizens and publicly claims that everyone is equal, no aspects of exclusion (like a specific religious part) should be in the official ceremonies.

    • Do you know, you’ve surprised me with something about Sweden. There’s always studies here showing correlations between happiness and religion, and Sweden usually comes out on top as one of the most content counties in the world, with something like a 70% atheist population. Given that (of course, I could be quite wrong), it’s quite a surprise to see even a token of religion during your elections. I don’t recall ever seeing something like that during British elections.

      • Now it’s your turn to surprise me… Sweden has the highest rate of suicides per capita… I don’t know how happiness fits there…
        Swedes ARE mostly irreligious, but I would hardly say atheists. People generally get married in churches and baptize their children

        • Well there you go; a poignant reminder that 78% of statistics are made up.

          That will happen a lot here; people will get married in a church if for nothing more than the tradition of it; baptisms are pretty much reserved for the catholic faith, though.

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