January 20, 2009
There’s a ceremony going on in Washington today that’s the stuff that nightmares are made of—that is if you belong to the ACLU. At noon, the Chief Justice of the United States will ask Barack Obama to place his hand on the Bible—the one used by Abraham Lincoln in 1861—and to swear allegiance to the Constitution. The oath will end with the words “so help me God.” Even worse, this theocratic moment will include a prayer by an evangelistic minister, one Rick Warren.
The ceremony is a perfect example of why the separation of church and state is an elite fiction that bears little resemblance to how democracy really works.
Consider this: Religious activities like public prayers have been excluded from public school graduations and football games. And yet, prayer and the Bible are integral components of our most important democratic ritual: the peaceful transfer of power. Every four years our rulers engage in the very rituals that they deny to the rest of us.
What lies behind the inauguration's blatant violation of the Supreme Court’s decisions regarding religion in public life?
Even after the Founders had established what they called a “new order for the ages,” they still desired a “proper ceremony”—one that underscored the importance of the occasion.
Ironically, the Founders imitated the very order they’d just overthrown. Law professor David Smolin wrote that George Washington used the coronation of King George III as a guide to his own inauguration. This included kissing the Bible and adding the words “So help me God” after Washington repeated the oath of office.
Despite the efforts of both the courts and the elites to purge the public square of all religious influences, these ties to religion keep popping up in the most unlikely places. As Smolin writes, “a policy of acting neutral among religions, or between religion and non-religion... has never [been] successfully carried out.”
This history is what lies behind all the politically incorrect religiosity you’ll see during today’s inauguration. Americans are a religious people. And it’s only fitting that this quality be reflected in the ceremony that marks the orderly transfer of political power. Our prayers and oaths are an acknowledgment that, however imperfect, we are a “nation under God”—that we’re under His judgment and protection. They’re an attempt to connect the profane work of governance to a sacred, transcendent order.
Our leaders, whether they share our beliefs or not, still benefit from these quasi-religious rituals. The government of the United States seeks a kind of moral legitimacy, even as it upholds the so-called separation of church and state. Invoking God’s blessing and placing itself under His judgment, if only for a day, furthers that purpose.
Inauguration day provides us with an opportunity to remind our neighbors that religion, especially Christianity, permeates our basic institutions. That’s why, despite the ACLU’s best efforts, religion keeps popping up in the strangest places — like in front of the Capitol on Inauguration Day.
Chuck Colson’s daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.