‘So help me God’: The piety and politics of the 2009 presidential inauguration

On Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009, as the world looked on, Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America. The ceremony was particularly momentous because Obama became the first African-American to hold the nation’s highest office, a groundbreaking event in U.S. history. But the inauguration was also a familiar re-enactment of the country’s oldest traditions, a solemn ritual of the American civil religion that has been passed along since George Washington first took the oath in 1789. Religion of the divinely inspired, churchgoing kind has come to play a central role as well, and debates over prayers and pastors taking part in the Obama inaugural showed that 2008 was no different in that regard.

Background

The President

Barack Obama attended Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago for most of his adult life. In May 2008, he left that congregation after an uproar over comments and sermons by the church’s controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

  • “Changing Hearts and Minds”

    In the Aug. 7, 2008, edition of Time magazine, Obama wrote a brief essay, “Changing Hearts and Minds,” which sets out his personal faith story.

The Vice-President

Joseph Biden, Obama’s running mate and now vice president, was born and raised Catholic in Scranton, Pa. He is considered a moderate supporter of abortion rights, and his stance on Roe v. Wade has brought him into conflict with some church leaders.

  • “A frank and abiding faith”

    An Aug. 27, 2007, Christian Science Monitor profile of Biden, “A frank and abiding faith,” is a good starting point for exploring his personal religious views.

The Congress

The Senate and the House of Representatives are supposed to represent the people of the United States, and when it comes to religious makeup, they do — for the most part. But the Congress is more religiously diverse than ever — as is the country. However, some smaller religions are overrepresented in the House and Senate in demographic terms, while some others are underrepresented.

  • “Faith on the Hill: 2008”

    According to this Dec. 19, 2008, survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, most members of Congress are Protestant, as is most of the country.

The Voters

Jewish voters

Jews and blacks were once united in struggles for civil rights and other campaigns, and although they still both vote predominantly for Democrats, there are tensions between the two communities. Obama said he wants to heal those divisions, and he stresses support for Israel as a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Despite unfounded rumors and claims and viral emails about his Muslim roots on his Kenyan father’s side (Obama himself is a Christian), Jewish voters overwhelmingly went for Obama. What will this mean for the future of the Republican Party’s efforts to attract the Jewish vote? The campaign also revealed fault lines in the problematic effort by the GOP to court the Jewish community through the conservative Christian movement, which is very pro-Israel. What of that relationship?

Muslim voters

Similarly, what about Muslim voters? Both campaigns said they did not want to dismiss any group, especially in a close election. But they also did not want to associate themselves too closely with the Muslim community because of widespread suspicions about Muslims that could attach to their candidate. Muslims were generally strongly supportive of Obama, but there are complex issues about negotiating the status of ethnicity and religion and politics for this largely immigrant community.

Atheists -- left out?

Atheists in the United States have been on a roll, with books blasting religion populating the best-seller lists while the so-called religious right and its champion, Bush, seemed to be on the mat. Yet in the presidential race, both candidates courted the religious vote.  So, what’s a faithful unbeliever to do? A strong majority of atheists, agnostics and secularists still supported Obama (along with most in the “unchurched” category). But will they find a political voice? If not, what is their role in a very religious American culture?

The Issues

The following is a guide to some of the principal issues of religion, morality and ethics that the administration faced.

Has the ‘religious left’ arrived?

Obama’s election victory was interpreted as a victory for the so-called “religious left,” which for several election cycles sought to gain traction as a counterweight to the vaunted “religious right.” How much pull did the Christian left have? What about the long-standing “God gap” between the Democratic and Republican parties? Will the religious left remain an organized force, part of the new structure of grass-roots politics? Or will Obama’s victory cause its adherents to leave the work up to the government?

Whither the religious right?

After initially voicing grave reservations about John McCain, the Christian right — galvanized by the selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate — threw considerable resources and prestige into defeating Obama. The tenor of some of the rhetoric was more apocalyptic than ever, according to many experts. And yet McCain lost. Some will cite factors like the economic crisis, the unpopularity of a sitting Republican president or a perceived bias by the media for the loss. But observers say the defeat is a gut-check for the religious right, as it is for the Republican Party. What went wrong? Is the religious right done, as many have long predicted? Was it overwhelmed by events beyond its control? Or is this part of a transformation as a new generation of leadership emerges? The traditional, GOP-leaning religious right lost some of its old guard leaders to death and scandal. Who will step up? And what of the role of the “new evangelicals,” who include issues such as the environment and poverty reduction among their electoral concerns?

Economics and poverty

The failing economy took center stage in the final weeks of the campaign, and worsening economic conditions since then have clearly made it the biggest agenda item for the incoming administration. In general, Obama supported aggressive spending measures to not only jump-start the economy but to relieve suffering and provide tax breaks to the neediest. Opponents, including many conservative believers, criticized that approach as “redistributionism” that penalizes wealthier Americans with higher taxes. That in turn has prompted a debate within various religious communities in terms of the faith perspective on taxation and justice. That debate sharpened as the Obama administration began to make tough decisions on aiding the economy.

War and peace

The exploding conflict in Gaza, the prospect of increased U.S. military action in Afghanistan and the ongoing war in Iraq and its attendant issues occupied much of President Obama’s time, even as he sought to focus on the economy. Experts say how he dealt with Israel and the Palestinians over the Gaza situation has indicated much about his style and policies and priorities. War and peace abroad remains a volatile topic, and one with no easy answers.

Binding up the nation’s wounds

The campaign of 2008 will likely be remembered as one of the most bitter and controversial, with race and gender used as wedge issues along with the usual hot-button topics, like abortion and gay marriage. Negative advertising and ugly outbursts at some campaign rallies made the rounds on the Internet, and continue to live on in cyberspace. What of the future, however? Did Obama fulfill his vow to bring people together, even after such an angry campaign? What role did the nation’s religious communities play? Many leaders and believers threw themselves headlong into bitter disputes. How did they react? And what role did the Web play? The campaign cemented the central role of blogging in public discourse. But many believe bloggers also coarsened the public conversation, and religiously oriented bloggers bear some of the blame.

Palin-ography: baptism by fire – confirmation in 2012?

The defeat of the Republican ticket almost certainly spells the end of 72-year-old McCain’s presidential ambitions. But the campaign may have signaled the rise of a new star, his running mate, Palin. Her surprise selection as the vice presidential nominee electrified the conservative Christian base of the party, and her post-election fate may be the strongest indicator of the future potency of the Christian right. Will she remain at the center of national GOP politics? Palin was reportedly baptized Catholic as an infant but then attended Assemblies of God churches while growing up, though she says she does not identify as a Pentecostal. She attends a number of nondenominational Protestant churches in Anchorage.

Where will the Obamas worship?

After the Wright controversy, when Obama and his family formally left Trinity United Church of Christ, he indicated he would find a new congregational home at some point in the future. Now that he is living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., will the Obamas find a Washington church? Foundry United Methodist Church near the White House has often been the default choice for presidents. But recently, presidents have also declined to attend a specific church, and have often organized small group worship and Bible studies at Camp David or the White House.

Communion watch, Catholic conundrums

The 2008 campaign revealed deep divisions within the Catholic Church in the United States, still the largest denomination by far and the largest single bloc of voters — nearly one quarter of the electorate. Obama’s selection of Biden, a lifelong, practicing Catholic who supports Roe v. Wade, renewed the furious debates from the 2004 campaign as to whether John Kerry should receive communion, or whether Catholics could in good conscience vote for him and consider themselves in good standing with the church. Both liberal and conservative Catholics, laity and bishops alike, clashed sharply in public rebukes, blog postings and op-ed columns. Obama’s success in capturing the Catholic vote, however, could leave the U.S. hierarchy in a bind, as the views of the hierarchy seemed so divergent from those of the Catholic electorate. Also, many bishops fiercely opposed Obama because of his stands on abortion. Yet the bishops also want to have a role in influencing public policy on that and other issues.

Another potential fault line revealed by the 2008 campaign is within the church itself, as the fast-growing ranks of Hispanic Catholics were much more sympathetic to Obama than white Catholics. What does this split herald for the future of American Catholicism?

The Supreme Court

The high court is the battleground for many of the most contentious issues of religion and the public square, from abortion to land-use restraints on houses of worship, prayer in schools to school vouchers. Apart from specific cases brought to the court, any nominations by Obama will also be a snapshot of how things are going in the culture wars.

Just as important, however, and often overlooked in the focus on Washington, are appointments to lower federal appeals courts. It is in these regional courts that many cases are first heard, or the arguments for or against rehearsed. Moreover, because the Supreme Court agrees to take only a fraction of the cases submitted to it, these regional appellate courts often have the last word in legal disputes. Moreover, the new president has had many more opportunities to make lower court appointments, and they signaled his intentions and judicial philosophy.

Faith-based future

Like Bush and McCain, Obama supported government funding for faith-based programs. That seemed to ensure that the policy shift to funding such programs, undertaken by Bush, will endure after he leaves office. But there are some important differences. The principal one was set out by Obama in a July 1, 2008, speech in Ohio in which he backed the expansion of faith-based programs but said organizations that accepted federal money could not discriminate in hiring based on religion.

God and the IRS

Death and taxes are supposedly the two certainties in life, but an Internal Revenue Service investigation of the tax-exempt status of houses of worship is coming in a close third, at least during an election year. Although 70 percent of registered voters said it’s inappropriate for clergy to speak publicly on behalf of or against a specific candidate, politicians continued to court such support – and they often got it.

Abortion

This election saw unprecedented efforts by Obama and the Democrats to scramble the usual pro-life/pro-choice categories by changing the party platform’s language on abortion and making an effort to focus on policies that would reduce abortions rather than arguing over Roe v. Wade. How much did abortion rights — a focus of so much coverage — really affect voters? What about going forward? Will abortion opponents redouble their efforts to overturn Roe? Or will there also be an effort to work together with the Democrats on abortion reduction programs?

Gay marriage

Gay rights and gay marriage in particular run a close second to abortion in terms of galvanizing and polarizing voters. Both Obama and McCain said they define marriage as the union of one man and one woman, but Obama would support some form of civil unions. There were ballot measures on same-sex marriage in three states in 2008: California, Arizona and Florida.

Women as leaders: a church-state divide?

Many women were deeply disappointed that Hillary Clinton did not win the Democratic nomination and was not chosen as Obama’s running mate. McCain’s choice of Palin was aimed at drawing some of those voters. As The New York Times reported Aug. 29, 2008, Palin said during her introduction at a rally in Ohio that “Hillary left 18 million cracks in the highest, hardest glass ceiling in America, but it turns out the women of America aren’t finished yet, and we can shatter that glass ceiling once and for all.”

The defeat of the GOP ticket put off that dream for a little bit,  but Palin’s candidacy did prompt an intense debate about the role of women in public life. Many asked how conservative Christians could support a Christian woman like Palin for one of the highest offices in the land while denying women leadership roles in church. But the debate sparked by the Palin candidacy does not seem to be the end of the arguments about women in faith and public life, even within the conservative Christian community.

Immigration

Immigration reform is a controversial topic and a top priority for religious communities. Yet it received scant attention during the campaign and figures to be a lightning-rod topic for the incoming administration. Uncertain, however, is what the economic downturn meant for immigration. There were signs that with less work available, fewer immigrants were coming to the United States. On the other hand, religious groups and charitable agencies worried about the immigrants already here, many of whom are on the lowest rung of the economic ladder and most vulnerable during a recession. The topic is of course critical to recent immigrants, most notably Latinos, who are changing the political and religious demographics of the United States.

African-American candidate, black preacher

The historic ascent of Obama as the first African-American president (his mother was white, his father black) put a spotlight on the faith of black Christians. Black churches have always been admired as pillars of the black community and often the only refuge for African-Americans in troubled big cities. Politically, they have been an important bloc of voters, in recent decades always in the Democratic camp. Obama’s candidacy and his election highlighted the difficult issues of race that Americans face both in society and in their houses of worship. Obama’s own faith and the controversy over his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, put distinctively black Christian concerns and theology front and center – uncomfortably for Obama, at times. (His speech on Wright and race in March 2008 in Philadelphia is considered a landmark in American discourse on the topic. A transcript is posted by The New York Times.) Yet part of Obama’s appeal – his ability to deliver an inspiring speech – was also directly traced to his experience with black preaching.

Youth are the future

The 2008 race, especially the Obama campaign, energized young voters in a way few other contests have, experts say. On both sides, young voters of faith were particularly involved and enthusiastic. Experts say these voters not only made a difference in the election’s outcome, but this experience could define how they view politics for the rest of their lives. Moreover, young voters seem to define their faith and values in significantly different ways than previous generations. How will this affect the future of religion and politics?

Environment

The debate over global warming, the energy crisis and the record of the Bush administration all put a particular focus on the environment in this campaign, and religious groups emerged as important players here. How did the new administration move ahead with new energy policies? And how did faith groups — whose views on the issue vary — react?

What's next?

So what did the inauguration of President Obama mean for the future of religion and politics? Obama — like his immediate predecessor, George W. Bush — is a professing Christian who says his faith will inform his decision-making. Many of Obama’s policy decisions, however, veered sharply from those of President Bush, who comes from a much more conservative social and economic Christian tradition.

Experts say that Obama’s faith-infused vision, along with the perceived successes of the so-called “religious left” in rallying liberal believers, signaled a new direction for religion and politics, not an end to that often controversial mix. How did Obama’s faith affect the direction of his administration — and the country? Did his goal of reconciliation lead to a truce in the “culture wars” — or a renewed struggle by both sides?

News articles and research

  • Obama’s Inaugural Address

    Read a transcript of President Obama’s inaugural address, posted at The Washington Post site. The speech was replete with religious and scriptural references and images.

  • Rick Warren’s Inaugural Invocation

    Read a transcript of Pastor Rick Warren’s opening prayer, posted at ChristianityToday.com.

  • “Lawsuit seeks to take ‘so help me God’ out of inaugural”

    In the run-up to the inaugural, President-elect Obama said he would continue the practice, whatever its origins. But several atheist groups filed a suit to remove the words from the oath on the grounds that it violates the separation of church and state. They were also joined by prominent atheist and activist Michael Newdow, who lost a suit to have the phrase “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. On Jan. 15, a federal judge also ruled against Newdow and the others in their bid to force Obama not to say “So help me God.”

  • Inaugural Prayers Through History – The Ultimate Archive

    The chaplain of the Senate traditionally gave a blessing at the inauguration, but since Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937, the president-elect has chosen clergy to deliver the prayers. Steven Waldman, author of the book Founding Faith: Providence, Politics and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America (2008) and editor in chief of Beliefnet, has an archive of the texts of invocations and benedictions (and who gave them) at presidential inaugurals since 1937. Waldman will update the archive as other information becomes available.

  • “Presidents as Pastors in Chief: An Update on Religion in Inaugural Addresses”

    Read a Feb. 7, 2013, column from the journal Sightings on presidents’ use of religious references in their inaugural addresses.

  • “Obama’s Choice of Pastor Creates Furor”

    Obama’s choice of Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback megachurch to give the invocation sparked an uproar. Liberals felt betrayed that Obama would pick an outspoken conservative evangelical and opponent of gay marriage and abortion rights for such a prime spot, and some of Warren’s allies on the religious right thought his appearance would give Obama a seal of approval.

  • “Gay Bishop Is Asked to Say Prayer at Inaugural Event”

    Then Obama invited the openly gay New Hampshire bishop, V. Gene Robinson, to lead the invocation at another inaugural event, and more outrage ensued.

  • “Gene Robinson, Rick Warren and The Inaugural Prayer Thicket”

    Lost in the uproar is the fact that all of the Inauguration Day clergy are Protestants. As Steven Waldman notes, there was often more religious diversity before 1990. And some have taken note of the lack of a rabbi, or imam, or Catholic priest as a headliner. 

  • Religion and the Presidency

    What is clear is that presidents have nearly always been Protestants, with a few exceptions. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has a resource page on “Religion and the Presidency” that shows the religious affiliation of all 44 presidents. “Nearly half the nation’s presidents have been affiliated with the Episcopal or Presbyterian churches,” Pew notes. “John F. Kennedy remains the only Catholic to have held the nation’s highest office. Only three U.S. presidents — Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson — have been unaffiliated with a specific religious tradition.”

  • “Black, Jewish Vote for Obama May Signal a Renewed Tie: But the Historic Allies Still Disagree on Many Issues”

    Read a Nov. 13, 2008, story in The Forward, a Jewish weekly, “Black, Jewish Vote for Obama May Signal a Renewed Tie: But the Historic Allies Still Disagree on Many Issues.”

National Sources

  • Robert M. Franklin

    Robert M. Franklin was tenth president of Morehouse College in Atlanta. He was ordained in the Church of God in Christ and worships in several different traditions. He has previously been president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, directed black church studies at Candler School of Theology and has been the Ford Foundation’s program officer, directing grants to African-American churches delivering secular social services. He is a frequent commentator and radio and TV guest. Among the books he has written are Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope to African American Communities (Fortress, February 2007) and Another Day’s Journey: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis (Fortress, 1997).

  • John C. Green

    John C. Green is a senior fellow at the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, specializing in religion and American politics. He also serves as interim university president, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics and distinguished professor of political science at the University of Akron.

  • David P. Gushee

    David P. Gushee is a distinguished professor of Christian ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University in Atlanta. He is frequently quoted about evangelical perspectives on ethics and was the principal drafter of the Evangelical Declaration Against Torture. He describes himself as a “Christian centrist.” Gushee’s most recent book is Changing Our Mind: A Call From America’s Leading Evangelical Ethics Scholar for Full Acceptance of LGBT Christians in the Church, in which he outlines his change of heart from opposing same-sex relationships.

  • James Guth

    James Guth is a professor of politics and international affairs at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. He has written widely on the emergence of Christian conservatives in the political arena.

  • Frederick C. Harris

    Fredrick C. Harris is a political science professor at Columbia University in New York, where he directs the Institute for Research in African-American Studies and the Center on African-American Politics and Society. Among the books he has written are Something Within: Religion in African-American Political Activism and (with R. Drew Smith) Black Churches and Local Politics: Clergy Influence, Organizational Partnerships, and Civic Empowerment.

  • Paul Knitter

    Paul Knitter is the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He is an expert in religious pluralism and can talk about how the election can affect the nation’s religious dynamics.

  • D. Michael Lindsay

    D. Michael Lindsay is a sociologist and the president of Gordon College, a Christian school in Wenham, Mass. His focus is on issues surrounding leadership, organizations and culture. He is a former Gallup consultant with an expertise on research about evangelicals. Lindsay is author of the 2007 book Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite and the 2014 book View From the Top: An Inside Look at How People in Power See and Shape the World.

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.

    R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and hosts a weekday call-in radio program. In 2001, he chaired the executive committee of the Greater Louisville Billy Graham Crusade. Mohler’s blog often mentions Graham.

  • Richard J. Mouw

    Richard J. Mouw is a well-known writer and commentator on evangelical Christianity and the president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., a leading evangelical institution. Contact Mouw through Fred Messick, Fuller’s associate vice president for public affairs.

  • Laura Olson

    Laura Olson is a professor of political science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and is also an expert on women and gender in religion. Her books include, as author, Filled With Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics and, as co-author, Women With a Mission: Religion, Gender and the Politics of Women Clergy. She is also co-author of a paper on mainline Protestant congregations and homosexuality.

  • Anthony B. Pinn

    Anthony B. Pinn is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University in Houston. He has been critical of the prosperity gospel preached in some black megachurches for its lack of emphasis on community service and charity. He is the author of Why, Lord?: Suffering and Evil in Black Theology and editor of Redemptive Suffering: a History of Theodicy in African-American Religious Thought. He also studies African-American religious humanism and is the author of African American Humanist Principles: Living and Thinking Like the Children of Nimrod and By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism.

  • Thomas Reese

    The Rev. Thomas J. Reese is a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for Religion News Service. He writes and comments widely on Catholic culture and politics. He is the author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church

  • Grant Wacker

    Grant Wacker is professor emeritus of Christian history at Duke University Divinity School in Durham, N.C. He specializes in the history of evangelicalism, Pentecostalism and world missions and is the author of Heaven Below: Early Pentecostals and American Culture.

  • Serene Jones

    Serene Jones is president of Union Theological Seminary in New York and Roosevelt Professor of Systematic Theology. She can discuss the ways in which Obama’s presidency could move the religious focus from hot-button issues of sexuality to social justice issues, such as poverty and homelessness.

    She can discuss the ways in which Obama’s presidency could move the religious focus from hot-button issues of sexuality to social justice issues, such as poverty and homelessness.

  • John K. White

    John K. White is a political science professor and fellow at the Life Cycle Institute at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

    White can provide historical perspective on the election and the impact of moral and Catholic values on the American electorate. White coined the phrase “E pluribus duo” to describe the United States’ political polarization into two competing political camps.

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