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President Obama's inauguration a celebration of civil religion

President Obama's inauguration a celebration of civil religion

Civil religion is the folk religion of a nation; in the United States, invocation of religion is expected by Americans at events such as the Presidential inauguration, mention of God in political speeches, and of course an example of civil religion can be found on our money, which asserts "In God We Trust."    God has been invoked during times of war.  The New World Encyclopedia says that "In 1763, Jean-Jacques Rousseau coined the term "civil religion" in his The Social Contract, to describe what he regarded as the moral and spiritual foundation essential for any modern society. In the 1950s and 1960s, scholars studied civil religion as a cultural phenomenon, attempting to identify the actual tenets of civil religion in the United States of America, or to study civil religion as a phenomenon of cultural anthropology."

Dr. Gary Scott Smith says in his op-ed piece of the same title in Penn Live that civil religion binds the nation:

“The knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny,” Barack Obama proclaimed in his first inaugural address, “is the source of our confidence.” Obama also accentuated God’s grace and asked Him to bless the United States. In both campaigning for office and as president, Obama has testified to his personal faith. While he strives to represent and serve all Americans—“Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers”—as he put in his first inaugural address, he has frequently confessed his “faith in Jesus Christ as his savior and Lord.” He used religious language and scriptural quotations to comfort families who lost members at Aurora and Newtown.

Presidents have sometimes employed the argument that the United States is God’s chosen nation or has a divine mission to justify military intervention, diplomatic coercion, and cultural imperialism in ways that have violated the self-determination of nations. Sadly, such claims have displayed American arrogance, ethnocentrism, and provincialism. Religious rhetoric has also been used to reinforce the assumption that American moral values and political principles are superior to those of other nations.

However, for the most part, whether it has been employed in a priestly way to console or a prophetic way to challenge, presidents’ use of religious rhetoric has often been beneficial. In the absence of a national church or an official religion, civil religion has served as a glue to help hold Americans of diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and ideologies together and to motivate them to work to achieve widely shared goals. It has also served as powerful foundation for moral order.

With that spirit in minds, President Barack Obama featured civil religion in many ways yesterday and today.  He was sworn in on three Bibles, the "travelling Bible" of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., (effectively honoring the day today for Dr. King),  the Bible used by Abraham Lincoln at his inauguration, and the family Bible of First Lady Michelle Obama.   The 57th Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service, an interfaith prayer service will be held at the National Cathedral Tuesday, which the President and his family will attend, a monument to American civil religion:

“The Inaugural Prayer Service is an historic observance that Washington National Cathedral is honored to host once again for President Barack Obama,” said the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Cathedral. “The Cathedral has come to be known as a spiritual home for the nation, and as part of living into that calling, it is our prayer that the service will embody the hopes and vision of our nation, and that God’s purpose might shine forth with new clarity in our lives.”

“The beginning of President Obama’s second term will be marked by the acknowledgement and celebration of the role of people of faith in American life,” said Presidential Inaugural Committee Spokeswoman Addie Whisenant. “President Obama’s own faith has played an integral role in his life, his commitment to service and his presidency, and this important tradition will celebrate the values and diversity that make us strong.”

The Obamas attended church Sunday at the  historic Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington.   Today's inaugration festivities began with the President and his family attending a prayer service St. John's Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House.with the Rev. Luis León presiding.

Moreover, there are unofficial prayer services being held.  Religion Clause reports:

Meanwhile today, two unofficial prayer breakfasts are planned in Washington. (Toledo Blade.) The one sponsored by religious conservatives at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park hotel, the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Breakfast, has become so controversial that the Senate Chaplain, Rev. Barry Black, has withdrawn. However the House Chaplain Rev. Patrick J. Conroy will attend. According to Washington Whispers, the breakfast: "features special guests Pat Robertson, a televangelist whose commentary has managed to offend gays, Haitians and feminists alike, Jonathan Cahn, a preacher who believes some of Obama's actions are apocalyptic, and Joseph Farah, the editor of WorldNetDaily who has long pushed the birther conspiracy theories about the president's citizenship." A second prayer breakfast, sponsored by Ask for America, will be held at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel. It will feature speakers more in line with President Obama's outlook, including Ambassador Suzan Johnson Cook, International Ambassador for Religious Freedom; Rev. Luis Cortes, Jr. President of Esperanza; Dr. Meadowlark Lemon, Mr. Basketball of the Harlem Globetotters; Brian Roquemore, America's All Stars Youth Organization; and Bishop Roderick Caeser, Bethel Gospel Tabernacle, Queens NY.

With so many faiths represented (and acknowledgement of those who do not believe as well), we can celebrate living in a country that has as a basic tenet and human right that freedom of religion, not freedom of one religion over another, is what contributes to a healthy civil discourse and the cause of democracy for all.

About Dakota O'Leary

Dakota O'Leary is a freethinker, and often sassy, scholar of theology and literature. She got her Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Theology from the State University of New York College at Buffalo, and her Master of Arts degree in Theology and Literature from Antioch University-Midwest. She is a contributing writer focusing on eschatology, biblical prophecy, and general religious news. Dakota is a co-host of the God Discussion radio show, offering insight to the news stories of the week. We like to call her "our in-house Biblical prophecy expert" as her articles on eschatology have received over 200,000 views on God Discussion.
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