Obama’s Religious Inauguration

Some of you Readers may be surprised at this opinion coming from me. But here it is.

If Barack Obama wants to take his oath as President and add on the words “So help me God,” I’m totally cool with that. If he wants to have a preacher give an invocation at his inauguration ceremony, I’m totally cool with that, too. He can have twenty preachers, ministers, priests, rabbis, imams, whatever.

I’d prefer that he didn’t, but it’s his party and he can pray if he wants to.

The only official part of the inauguration, as I see it, is the administration of the Constitutionally-mandated oath of office. Article II, section 1, requires that before assuming office, Obama say the following: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) 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.” That’s it. No one has suggested that he is not going to say those words, and of course he will.

But Obama can say other stuff, too, as long as he says the Constitutionally-required words, at or around noon, on January 20, 2009. If one of those other things he wants to say are the words “so help me God,” well, the man is both a Christian and a politician, and he’s entitled to barter for political advantage on his religion if he chooses to. He hasn’t promised not to do so, although I think he should (see last night’s post). He doesn’t give up his First Amendment rights to say what he wishes, or to worship (or not) as he chooses, upon assuming the highest office in the land.

President Obama probably will give a speech after taking the oath of office. But he doesn’t have to. That’s a political choice he’s making. He can let President Bush say a few words if he wants to — whatever his other faults you may wish to point out, Bush is a very gracious man and I’m quite confident that if offered the chance to speak at Obama’s inauguration, Bush would say only nice things about Obama. But at the same time, he can hardly expect to be given a platform; it’s not his party, it’s not his political theater. It’s Obama’s, and Obama gets to script it exactly as he pleases.

Obama can have a ceremony around his taking the oath if he wants. But he doesn’t have to. Again, that’s a political choice. The ceremony will be designed to Obama’s political advantage because he’s the one calling the shots now. Thus it has ever been with ceremonies and rituals designed to commemorate political events. This ceremony is, in some ways, the endgame to Obama’s political campaign.

And this particular ceremony is largely being paid for with corporate dollars and campaign funds — not public money. Public funds are being used to pay for the security and the motorcade so Obama can take the oath the Constitution requires him to take. It will cost the same amount of public money if he includes the religious stuff or if he does not. But the bulk of the ceremony and celebrations surrounding the inauguration are paid for privately, and private people and private corporations can do what they want with their money, and that includes underwriting religious expression if they choose to do it.

Many Presidents have sworn the oath and assumed office without the benefit of the pomp and circumstance of an inaugural address and a bunch of fancy parties. Every Vice-President who has taken office because of a vacancy in the top spot has done so without an inauguration ceremony any more elaborate than having someone witness him saying it — it doesn’t have to be the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Lyndon B. Johnson was administered the oath of office by his father, on an airplane flying to Washington immediately after President Kennedy’s death. The airplane therefore became known by the call sign “Air Force One” in mid-flight, which would be kind of cool, if it weren’t for the terrible circumstances in which it happened.

The Constitution allows the new President can say “swear” or “affirm,” as he chooses. Seems to me that a new President should say “swear,” and a re-elected President beginning his second term should say “affirm,” because he’s already sworn the oath once before and he’s still operating under the burden of that first oath. As far as I can tell, the only President to use the word “affirm” in his oath was Martin Van Buren, and he figured that he was “affirming” the oath he took upon assuming the office of the Vice Presidency. The choice of “swear” or “affirm” is a political one.

The new President doesn’t need to swear on a Bible or any other book. John Quincy Adams refused to use any book at all, he just held up his right hand to indicate that he was taking an oath. Technically, the new President doesn’t even need to raise his right hand, he just needs to say the words set forth in the Constitution.

But it’s all a political ceremony, not an official governmental action. No one is required to participate, public money is not used to pay for it, and the ritual carries no legal significance. And that’s the reason I’m cool with it having religious elements.

In some cases, we’re required to use money that invokes God. Schoolchildren and teachers are required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The motto “In God We Trust” is endorsed on our behalf. Tax dollars are used to subsidize the activities of particular churches. Those are matters about which we have no choice, matters in which our behavior is compelled by the law. Those are matters to which I object.

But throwing a party to honor the new President, with private funds? That’s something else. I’m not required to do, or more importantly pay for, anything at all (at least, not that I wouldn’t have to pay for anyway, even if the oath ceremony were 100% secular). No one is making me worship God by virtue of Obama doing it. So just like I don’t have any beef with it if the Obamas say grace before their meals, I don’t mind if he says a prayer or has someone else say a prayer for him at his own party.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.