In the days following President Obama’s inauguration address, commentators across the political spectrum have made much about how it overtly expressed a progressive agenda.
It was not only a politically progressive speech, however, it was a masterwork of progressive theology: a public sermon on the meaning of America, a creedal statement and a call to practice that faith in the world. It was an expression of a genuinely pluralistic America, the first inaugural address of a new sort of American civil spirituality.
President Obama is a Christian but made few, if any, direct appeals to religion during his recent campaign. As president, he has a new historical problem when it comes to speaking of faith. Through the twentieth century, presidents were able to craft a generally religious language that addressed America’s three most influential groups-Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. When President Kennedy delivered his inaugural address, it was considered the best public sermon in this tradition of American civil religion.
But the old civil religion is no longer enough. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the percentage of the Christian population has declined as the number of nones, atheists, agnostics, and those adhering to non-Christian religions increased exponentially. In 2011, according to the Pew Forum, the United States became an officially pluralistic religious country for the first time in its history, with no single faith tradition claiming the allegiance of 50 percent of the population. Overtly Judeo-Christian understandings of God are no longer adequate to address and include all of America’s people. President Obama is the first president who, as a Christian person, has to speak to and for the new communities of American faiths.
What can a president do? Leave faith out of the equation? Or find new ways of expressing the transcendent meanings of community? Abandoning the language of faith would, of course, be the easier path (and the favored choice for the atheists in our midst). In his inaugural speech, President Obama did not choose the easy road. Instead, he linked his progressive political agenda with transcendent values, with a spiritual appeal to the new American pluralism.
What binds together the variety of American faiths? President Obama insisted that our unity is found in a powerful theme, borrowed from the twin theological sources of his own African-American Christianity and Protestant liberalism: Life is a journey. In both of these theological traditions, one is never fully satisfied with the way things are. We are on perpetual pilgrimage, never arriving to a settled place. We seek deeper justice, greater knowledge of ourselves in and through God, elusive wisdom, and wise action as we sojourn in and through the world. At the outset of the speech, President Obama stated, “Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words [of our founding texts] with the realities of our time.” We are political sojourners.
Not only is this idea at the core of President Obama’s liberal Christianity, it is also central to contemporary spiritualities, Judaism, Buddhism, forms of native religion, Islamic traditions and agnosticism. To call the American people into a journey is both a spiritual and political invitation toward new understanding of who we are and who we might be. To President Obama, the appeal is a Christian one, but also one shared and understood by others. It is both specific and open at the same time.
In the second section of the speech, President Obama articulated six beliefs of a spiritual and political, as well as inclusive and pluralistic, creed: 1) We believe in community; 2) We believe in shared prosperity; 3) We believe in mutual care of one another; 4) We believe in stewardship of the Earth; 5) We believe in peacemaking; and 6) We believe in equality and human rights. Each one of these creedal statements was backed by subtle references to Hebrew or Christian scriptures, an occasional historical reference to a noted sermon or hymn, as well as more general appeals to God or divine favor.
Finally, President Obama ended the speech with a call to action. Almost all good sermons end with the preacher telling his or her congregation to do something. Serve the poor, proclaim the faith, have hope in the future, renew your hearts. Indeed, the inauguration address did just that: Answer the call of history by renewing our ancient covenant of justice and equality in this new and uncertain world. We must make a new American future.
The inaugural address was assertively progressive. It was also a powerful and deeply nuanced piece of public theology in the liberal Protestant tradition. As such, it embraced the new American pluralism as a welcome expansion of our national journey. In the process, President Obama gave us an innovative new form of public address-his was the first spiritual-but-not-religious inaugural sermon, a twenty-first century expression of American civil spirituality, embedded in but not dependent upon the ancient vision of American Protestant theology of and for God’s almost-chosen, always striving nation.
Diana Butler Bass is the author of eight books, including “Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening” (HarperOne, 2012). She is a fellow of the SeaburyNEXT project of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, an independent scholar, educator, and blogger.