Setting aside the substance of Obama’s inauguration address, the pop star lip synching debates, the reported audiovisual troubles in the far reaches of the National Mall and other topics that have spawned recent Twitter chatter since Obama’s second swearing in, I have one question after reflecting on the “Faith in America’s Future” inauguration:
We might have national pride, but would we do better to have a healthy dose of national humility?
In his introductory remarks, Senator Charles Schumer touted the “ongoing success of our collective journey” as Americans and lamented that “far too many doubt the future of this great nation.”
Evoking the too-rosy glow of a Thomas Kinkade print, he declared that “Americans have always been, and still are a practical, optimistic, problem-solving people,” and that “America always rises to the occasion.” But he pushed the sentimental sunbeams even further, rebuking any would-be naysayer or opponent: “America always rises to the occasion. America prevails and America prospers. Those who bet against this country have been on the wrong side of history.”
Then, to my surprise, the “h-word” made a fleeting appearance before drowning in the next wave of rhetoric: Americans need to gain “strength, courage and humility…”
As I have raised this “national humility” question with friends, they have reminded me that I should not be shocked by high-handed rhetoric—the words of pomp and circumstance. I realized that my response likely reflects my rickety frame of reference, given that I have not listened attentively to many inaugural addresses in the past. So I decided to investigate whether or not our pomp has grown more pompous over time.
The Washington Post’s historical piece, “The oaths: From Washington to Obama” filled in the holes, bringing a plethora of comparative fodder to my fingertips. (I recommend perusing if you’re interested in anything from the Commander in Chief’s garb, to the day’s weather, to the details on the specific Bible used to swear in each of America’s 57 inauguration ceremonies.)
While I can’t claim to summarize the trajectory of our national attitude, I can tell you that John Adams’s swearing in provided an intriguing foil to last week’s affair.
On his inauguration day, John Adams wore a “suit of grey broadcloth, without fancy buttons or knee buckles,” included a 727-word sentence (yes, that’s more than a page of typed text), and conveyed a sense of humble awe and caution. Facing an “ocean of uncertainty” and participating in an unprecedented peaceful transfer of power, Adams expressed humility in relation to the Creator we presume when we claim that “all men are created equal.”
In Adams’s words:
And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent with the ends of His providence.
Just 216 years later, facing a very different “ocean of uncertainty” than our forefathers, our leaders of this yet-young nation declare: “America prevails,” citing history as our vindication. This seems hubristic and naïve. Worse yet, it implies that the theme “Faith in America’s Future” is not just a peppy title but a nudge toward idolatrous nationalism. This is more than I can accept; the nation can and should have my prayers and respect, and even ask me to sacrifice—but my faith?
“God Bless America” — A prayer, not an order
So where do we put our faith? We’ve hit contentious territory for this country, with theistic foundations and a commitment to abstaining from establishing a national religion. But when we invoke the Creator, claiming (as Obama emphasized in his remarks) that “all men are created equal,” it’s important to adjust our language and posture to acknowledge who we are talking about. When we approach the “Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world,” we must remember that “God Bless these United States of America” is rightfully a petition—not a slogan or a command.
May God bless America, help our leaders, and give us the wisdom to trade our nationalistic pride for a more becoming national humility.