By Ted Braun
Next week during the inauguration ceremony President Obama will take the following oath or affirmation: "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."
These words come directly from Article II. Section 1, of the Constitution. Over the years, however, presidents have added the words "So help me, God" to the oath, although this is not required by the Constitution. They have also added the custom of placing their left hand on a Bible as they hold up their right hand. President Obama plans once again to use the Lincoln Bible, first used by Abraham Lincoln when he took the Oath of Office on March 4, 1861, and now owned by the Library of Congress.
It's interesting why these religious elements have been melded into a non-religious political event, but they are evidence of how "civil religion" operates: the practice of using religious language and symbols to buttress state power. It dates back to the pre-Christian era when the Romans swore oaths to the emperor or to the gods.
When God and the Bible are introduced into the context of political events and ceremonies, it is always important to define which God and what divine activities are being endorsed and claimed. For Obama to endorse the God described in I Samuel 15:2-3 has the potential of terrible foreign policy decisions: "Thus says the Lord of hosts, 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came out of Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"
The mixing of politics and religion is also evident in the way our nation's present motto, "In God we trust," has been placed on all our currency. This faith statement first appeared during the War of 1812 in one of the stanzas of The Star-Spangled Banner. Then in 1861 eleven northern Christian denominations, believing that God was on the Union Side of the Civil War, petitioned the Treasury Department to add such a statement onto our currency. In 1873 Congress passed the Coinage Act to inscribe this statement on coins. In 1956 the 84th Congress passed a joint resolution to replace the previous motto, "e pluribus unum," with "In God we trust."
In 1970 the United States Court of Appeals for the United States ruled "that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency, 'In God We Trust,' has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise." The Supreme Court later commented that "this 'ceremonial deism' had lost through rote repetition any significant religious content."
Questions have been raised, however, whether such a denial of religious content really holds. The fact is that this statement of faith in God and in money is really Wall Street's religious conviction: "In Wealth we trust," or as Jesus would phrase it, "In Mammon we trust." The National Rifle Association has its own faith statement, "In Guns we trust," and our nation, in the midst of a burgeoning empire, has its own version, "In Drones we trust."
These are questions we might think about when we see Obama place his hand on the Lincoln Bible next week.