Paul L. Caron

Sunday, January 24, 2021

God At The Inauguration

Wall Street Journal op-ed:  God at the Inauguration, by Tevi Troy (presidential historian) & Stuart Halpern (Yeshiva University):

Presidential inaugural addresses are unpredictable, but it’s a good bet that they will refer to the Bible. President Biden did, quoting Psalm 30:5: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” This is part of a welcome, long-running trend toward more religious language in public life.

Mr. Biden has cited Psalm 30 in speeches before, and it seems particularly apt in these dark times. Mr. Biden also encouraged his fellow Americans to “open our souls instead of hardening our hearts,” an allusion to God hardening Pharaoh’s heart, beginning with Exodus 7:13.

With these references, 27 out of 45 presidents have cited the Bible in their inaugural addresses, making a total of 64 biblical references. Forty-four came from the Hebrew Bible and 20 from the New Testament. John F. Kennedy, the only Catholic president before Mr. Biden, made the most allusions in one speech, with five. ...

The tradition of biblical allusions in inaugural addresses dates back to the beginning of the Republic, when George Washington made an argument for them. In his first inaugural, Washington referred to Psalm 82. “It would be peculiarly improper,” he said, “to omit in this official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of the nations.” ...

Biblical allusions are not risk-free. When one does cite the Bible, it is best to be genuine about it. Few Americans saw Donald Trump as a deeply religious man—a reputation he solidified in 2016 by referring to “two Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.” And Mr. Biden, despite his frequent biblical references, recently pronounced “Psalmists” as “palmists.” Gaffes like these can lead the religious and secular alike to wonder reasonably about political leaders’ sincerity.

In citing the Bible in his inaugural address, Mr. Biden has continued a venerable and valuable presidential tradition, one that shaped the country’s cultural vocabulary for more than two centuries. Even in an ever more secular world, there’s still value in referencing such timeless words.

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