Politics & Policy

God & Presidents At Inaugurals

Is the Almighty invited?

George W. Bush will soon be delivering his second inaugural address. Will he mention God? Or, perhaps the better question is: Will any mention of God by Bush be tolerated by the self-proclaimed “tolerant” among us, by those who embrace “diversity?”

God has a rich history at U.S. presidential inaugurations past. In this nation’s first inaugural address, George Washington uttered words that today would be considered unacceptable: “It would be particularly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplication to that Almighty Being, Who rules over the universe, Who presided in the councils of nations.”

The greatest Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, didn’t shy from invoking God. In his second inaugural, FDR pledged he would do his utmost by “seeking Divine guidance.” In his fourth and final inaugural, he asserted: “The Almighty God has blessed our land in many ways. He has given our people stout hearts and strong arms with which to strike mighty blows for freedom and truth…. So we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly…to the achievement of His will.”

Much can be learned about another Democratic-party icon, John F. Kennedy, through his first presidential words. When he read his inaugural address from the east front of the Capitol during a cold January day in 1961, the new president began by mentioning God twice. One of these was a very George W. Bush-like pronouncement: “[T]he rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” Halfway through the brief speech, JFK quoted the prophet Isaiah.

We all recall JFK’s famous closing line in his inaugural, which asked “ask not what….” What we don’t remember–probably because they aren’t taught in schools–were JFK’s broader remarks about America’s role in history and relation to God. The Democrat claimed that in the annals of world history, only a few nations had been granted “the role of defending freedom in its hour of maximum danger”–a duty he said he personally welcomed. America, Kennedy contended, could spark a fire that could “truly light the world.” After asking Americans to consider what they could do for their country, Kennedy followed: “My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” He concluded his historic address with this: “[L]et us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

These were words that Bill Clinton hailed. Clinton, who in November 1993 said, “by the grace of God last year I was elected president,” also pledged (in August 1994) that “Our ministry is to do the work of God here on Earth.” At the start of his first inaugural address, Clinton mentioned the Founders and “the Almighty.” He quoted the Bible. And, as he did in the closing line of his second inaugural, he called upon God: “And now, each in our own way, and with God’s help, we must answer the call.”

Democratic presidents are allowed to talk about God, whereas Republican presidents are pilloried when they do so.

Speaking of Republicans, in his first inaugural Ronald Reagan thanked Americans for their prayers: “I’m told that tens of thousands of prayer meetings are being held on this day, and for that I’m deeply grateful…. It would be fitting and good, I think, if on each Inaugural Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer.” This was a call that George W. Bush seconded 20 years later.

Like Bush, Reagan went so far as to maintain that God had “placed” the “dream of freedom” within the human heart. That was the last line in his second inaugural. It echoed a line from his first: “We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for us to be free.” Both of those lines were drawn by Reagan’s own pen. In fact, Reagan took the very unusual step of writing his entire first inaugural address by himself–this from a man who we were told was stupid.

Alas, George W. Bush has a rich history of invoking God during inaugurals. In his first inaugural as governor, he promised fellow Texans: “The duties that I assume can best be met with the guidance of One greater than ourselves. I ask for God’s help.” It was the first of many such Bush acknowledgments, whether in Austin or Washington.

In his second inaugural, the governor spoke words that resonated beyond Texas: “All of us have worth. We’re all made in the image of God.” People “have a worth, a dignity, and a free will given by God, not by government.”

In his first inaugural as president, Bush shared a story about the Founders. After signing the Declaration of Independence, Virginian John Page wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “We know the race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong. Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?” To George W. Bush, the answer was certain. And for the first of many times as president, he told the nation: “We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with His purpose. Yet His purpose is achieved in our duty; and our duty is fulfilled in service to one another. Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew that purpose today: to make our country more just and generous; to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life. This work continues. This story goes on. And an Angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm. God bless you all, and God bless America.”

Those words began the presidency of George W. Bush.

Despite all this history, if George W. Bush mentions God in his second inaugural, especially in a meaningful way, he can expect to be attacked by those abysmally ignorant of U.S. history, by those clueless as to the real meaning of separation of church and state, by those seeking to expunge any vestige of God from public life, by those frightened at the notion of moral absolutes, by those who detest organized religion, by angry secularists, and by columnists for the New York Times.

So, expect it, Mr. President, and ignore it. Tell us what you believe. Speak with eloquence to the ages, not to the malcontents who complain no matter what you say.

Paul Kengor is author of God and George W. Bush. He is also a professor of political science at Grove City College and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution.


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