Obama extols a biblical vision of equality for all in second inaugural

(RNS) A presidential inauguration is by tradition the grandest ritual of America’s civil religion, but President Obama took the oath of office on Monday (Jan. 21) in a ceremony that was explicit in joining theology to the nation’s destiny and setting out a biblical vision of equality that includes race, gender, class, and, most controversially, sexual orientation.

Obama’s speech, his second inaugural address, repeatedly cited civic and religious doctrines — namely the God-given equality extolled by the “founding creed” of the Declaration of Independence — to essentially reconsecrate the country to the common good and to the dignity of each person.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a church service at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama attend a church service at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., on Inauguration Day, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013.

It was a faith-infused event that recognized both the original sins as well as the later atonements of America’s history, especially on race, which was front and center as the nation’s first African-American president took the oath on the holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

And Obama and other speakers vividly traced the nation’s tortuous path from slavery to civil rights — from the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago to the March on Washington 50 years ago, the latter presided over by King.

Yet Obama also declared that this tumultuous past was not an occasion for despair; rather, he said, it should inspire Americans to renew a joint pilgrimage that would never be finished but must always be carried forward as each generation adapts to new challenges, whether on the economy or identity.

“For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” Obama told hundreds of thousands of cheering onlookers gathered on a chilly day on the Mall in front of the Capitol.

“Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law,” he added, “for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.”

The president also included immigrants and the working classes in his vision of a future American equality. But his inclusion of gay rights was especially pointed in that the first pastor he chose to deliver the day’s benediction — the Rev. Louie Giglio, a prominent evangelical — was forced to step aside earlier this month after anti-gay remarks he made in the 1990s surfaced.

Giglio was replaced by the Rev. Luis Leon, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church across Lafayette Square from the White House.

The Episcopal Church as a denomination welcomes gay clergy and couples, and in his closing prayer on Monday, Leon asked that God allow Americans to see each other as a reflection of the divine image, “whether brown, black or white, male or female, first generation or immigrant American, or daughter of the American Revolution, gay or straight, rich or poor.”

Preceding Leon was another Latino, and a gay man, poet Richard Blanco, whose presence further underscored the shifts in public acceptance of gays and lesbians as well as the president’s increasing embrace of gay equality.

Americans, the president said, “have always understood that when times change, so must we; that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges; that preserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the chairman emeritus of the NAACP, has been chosen to give the invocation at President Obama?s second inauguration.

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the chairman emeritus of the NAACP, has been chosen to give the invocation at President Obama?s second inauguration.

That theme of renewed unity — spiritual and communal, crossing the many divides in U.S. society — was perhaps the central thread of this inauguration. It was a theme grounded in the national struggle for civil rights, a history that was everywhere present.

“As we sing the words of belief, ‘this is my country,’ let us act upon the meaning that everyone is included,” Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was killed by a white supremacist in 1963, said in her prayer to start the inauguration.

Evers-Williams, Obama and the other speakers framed that history in a way that evoked the nation’s past while setting out a new agenda for the future.

They refuted the bitter polarization that has gripped national politics by deploying the language and cadence of Scripture, of Christian anthems and national hymns, and not surprisingly a reference by the president to the most famous second inaugural address, that of Abraham Lincoln, one of Obama’s heroes.

“If you had any doubt that we are in the middle of a Fourth Great Awakening, you just missed one of the greatest inauguration speeches in American history,” Diana Butler Bass, a historian of American religion, wrote on Facebook as she watched the speech.

The religious language and symbols of the day could also be read as a direct rejoinder to the president’s die-hard opponents, many of whom insist that he is not a Christian and that he does not believe in America’s divine mantle.

Obama instead embraced American exceptionalism and repeatedly cited God’s will. The Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and icons of popular culture performed. “American Idol” star Kelly Clarkson sang “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” and Beyonce the national anthem.

The other traditional elements of a presidential inauguration were also on display: Obama swore on historic Bibles used by King and Abraham Lincoln, and of course used the phrase “So help me God” at the conclusion of the oath of office, a later and unofficial addition.

The Obamas began the day in church on Monday — after attending services, as did Vice President Biden — on Sunday, and the religious ceremonies were to continue on Tuesday with a prayer service at Washington National Cathedral, led by Methodist preacher Adam Hamilton.

Yet the events were hardly a celebration of national or spiritual triumphalism. There was a profound awareness of the challenges overcome, yes, but also the obstacles — and internal divisions — to be faced if the country is to move forward.

In perhaps the most important, and little-noted, passage in his speech, Obama invoked the kind of Christian realism that was a hallmark of one of his favorite theologians, Reinhold Niebuhr. It is a theology that the president views as the kind of approach that should inspire leaders to reason together and act, however flawed the process or results may be.

“We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate,” Obama said toward the end of his address.

“We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years and 40 years and 400 years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.”

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0 Responses to “Obama extols a biblical vision of equality for all in second inaugural”

  1. Denis Eble

    Yes, “we need jobs,” as Alveda King remarked. Yet, why aren’t those jobs being ‘created?’ The question begs an honest answer.

    It seems to me that there are three major ways that jobs can be created. One is through the free market alone. Another is through government incentives to business. The third is through government programs.

    If one is looking for ‘blame’ on this topic, why is the President the target? He could be the culprit if he has done nothing in the three areas I suggested above. Has he done nothing in those areas?

    Does anyone have that answer?

    Let me comment further. It seems interesting that ‘birth control’ has been oddly thrown into this discussion of employment. Yes, birth control. How does that topic blend into a discussion of economic opportunity?

    I’ll suggest one: a single woman with a baby has few opportunities to find work. Had she availed herself of birth control, the prospects for securing a job would be greatly enhanced.

    If anybody would want to extend the discussion about birth control and economic advantage, I’d enjoy a friendly discussion. We could begin with the $500 million ‘for better schools’ quoted above.

    Reply
  2. chuck childers

    Despite the presence of an African-American in the White House, MLK niece Alveda King is critical of the progress that Obama has made in addressing the most pressing issues facing the black community, such as high unemployment.

    “Mr. President, we need jobs. We don’t need free birth control, and you’re funding Planned Parenthood,” she explained. “Sir, we could have had better schools with that $500 million.

    Reply
  3. Denis Eble

    Jodie DeFoe’s comments about President Obama smack terribly of political partisanism. Her quote from Matthew is rather obscure and meaningless as well.

    I find it pathetically humorous that the supposed ‘Christians’ who opposed Mr.
    Obama for 4 straight years are on the wrong side of the teachings of Jesus. When did Jesus consider money and taxes a worthwhile subject other than criticizing those who raised the issues as somehow ‘important.’

    When do I hear these so-called ‘Christians’ pine for the poor, the outcast, the disabled, the widows, the disadvantaged and the minorities among us?

    Rather, it’s all about the money.

    Pathetic pap.

    Reply
  4. Jodie DeFoe

    Your article pinpoints what is wrong with American journalism today. Where are the FACTS?! This view of Obama is completely based on emotion and highly subjective. What you don’t mention is that our country is on the brink of financial collapse. Obama racked up $16 TRILLION in debt in the last four years and has not submitted a budget in almost three years, with no plans to balance the budget in the future. Instead he increased taxes on 77% of Americans and begins his second term insisting on an increase in the debt ceiling although it risks yet ANOTHER downgrade in our credit rating. I realize Obama fulfills an emotion void for African Americans, but the reality he has a JOB to do and he has been a failure at it. You’re so wrapped up in race that you don’t see the forest for the trees. Do you care that our children and grandchildren will bare the collapse of this country while you’re busy hanging Obama-fan posters in your bedroom? Much of this article is a skewed fairly-tale of reality. The truth is Abraham Lincoln worked to united a divided country, and Obama has polarized and divided a united country. They have nothing in common. I also find it offensive that Obama “preaches” to us, when his actions speak different and he most certainly is not my God.

    “For many shall come in my name.” Matthew 24:5

    Obama is not a God. He is a man, that has been elected to do a job and he has failed at it. Would you support him as strongly if he were white? If not (and I doubt it)… that my friend is true RACISM.

    Reply
  5. Denis Eble

    The author suggests a ‘setting out a biblical vision of equality.’

    I find little ‘equality’ in the Old Testament. Slavery and misogyny were rampant in that chauvinistic society.Further, the glorification and promotion of ethnic cleansing by the Israelites surely does not smack of ‘equality.’

    Only in the New Testament do we find a move towards some sort of ‘equality,’ but the society in which Jesus lived remained highly unequal for centuries after his passing. Clearly the writer Paul does not indicate that he thought much about equality as he mentions the obedience of slaves to their masters as well as wives being obedient to their husbands.

    Reply

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