I must have missed the performance of “God Bless America” during the 57th Presidential Inauguration, because it was the only thing absent from a full day of mixing religious rhetoric into political ceremony. Watching the inauguration, you would have thought we were living in a Christian nation, whatever that means. It seems God has a monopoly on our political ceremonies. I guess it’s natural that the main provider of rituals for life’s other great events—weddings and deaths—should be brought into governmental processions. The official theme of the day was, “Faith in America’s Future,” and was stressed by traditional invocations and benedictions, hands on bibles, and almighty welcomings. The question we should ask ourselves as citizens is how much use do we have for religious rhetoric in politics?
Whatever private consolation or strength a person gets from his or her religion is none of my business. On the contrary, it’s my business to make sure their beliefs are protected from infringement. It is not for me to tell them otherwise if they use their religion as motivation and guidance in political positions, just as they couldn’t tell me not to be ethically motivated by the writings of philosophers and poets. It would be impossible to imagine a scenario where the books we read couldn’t be used to justify beliefs we held in the public sphere. Even references to these texts shouldn’t be frowned upon. One man’s, “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness,” is another man’s, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Whether it’s John Stuart Mill or Jesus of Nazareth, I say to each his own.
There are at least two cases of religious language in politics that should be frowned upon: one is that these quotes are used to justify or incite hatred and intolerance. We should only have hatred towards and intolerance of people who are hateful and intolerant, and if they cite their favorite texts as justification, we should disqualify them from the argument. The other move that should be a disqualifier is if someone tries to force his or her private beliefs onto someone else.
In the case of the inauguration, I think that individuals, such as poets and presidents, should speak openly on their motivations and aspirations. But, we should not make room in the schedule of our political events for the religious impulse. We should not have public prayers, invocations, or benedictions. I would hope that all God-talk would be kept to a minimum during speeches, and I’d prefer to be left out of the personal prayers of others. But, we should absolutely not be having opening and closing prayers as part of the procession. No inviting the nation to pray during inauguration day. No, thank you.
Lastly, in his inaugural address, President Obama should feel free to make reference to any religious tradition he’d like. If he wants to harness the momentum of the social gospel movements to limit cruelty and promote liberty, be my guest. He said, “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law, for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”
If he wants to promote marriage equality through almighty references, I say power to him.
If he wants to promise equal opportunity to all children, to say of a little girl born into poverty, “She is equal not just in the eyes of God but also in our own,” I say hurrah!
If he wants to say we should face the threat of climate change and preserve our planet, as “commanded to our care by God,” I say Hallelujah!
If he says that his oath of office was not to party or faction, but “an oath to God and country,” as a way of saying he’ll do what he thinks is best for the country as if he were being divinely supervised, I guess that’s fine.
Still, I would prefer he didn’t end every speech by asking God to forever bless these United States. Divine favor hasn’t lowered the debt and it’s not going to pass immigration reform. Let’s try and stay secular people!
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