Why Do Presidential Inaugurals Often Sound So Much Alike?

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What we have, from the earliest years of the republic, is a collection of beliefs, symbols and rituals with respect to sacred things and institutionalized in a collectivity ... American civil religion has its own prophets and its own martyrs, its own sacred events and sacred places, its own solemn rituals and symbols. It is concerned that America be a society as perfectly in accord with the will of God as men can make it, and a light to all the nations.--Robert Bellah (1967)

In 1967 in an article in Daedalus sociologist Robert Bellah, developing ideas first expressed by Rousseau, suggested that America has a civil religion. By this he meant all the symbols, rituals, core beliefs, and values that keep a country together and help define it. One reason presidential inaugural addresses often sound alike is because the presidents repeatedly appeal to Americans by invoking their civil religion.

What follows is a list of several of the ways different presidents have expressed key tenets of our civil religion.

Deference to God

James K. Polk In assuming responsibilities so vast I fervently invoke the aid of that Almighty Ruler of the Universe in whose hands are the destinies of nations and of men to guard this Heaven-favored land against the mischiefs which without His guidance might arise from an unwise public policy. With a firm reliance upon the wisdom of Omnipotence to sustain and direct me in the path of duty which I am appointed to pursue, I stand in the presence of this assembled multitude of my countrymen to take upon myself the solemn obligation"to the best of my ability to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." (1845)

Americans' Role as a Chosen People

Thomas Jefferson Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? (1801)

America's Mission to Spread Freedom and Democracy and Peace Around the Globe

Richard Nixon The greatest honor history can bestow is the title of peacemaker. This honor now beckons America—the chance to help lead the world at last out of the valley of turmoil, and onto that high ground of peace that man has dreamed of since the dawn of civilization. If we succeed, generations to come will say of us now living that we mastered our moment, that we helped make the world safe for mankind. (1969)

America as an Example for the World

Theodore Roosevelt Upon the success of our experiment much depends, not only as regards our own welfare, but as regards the welfare of mankind. If we fail, the cause of free self-government throughout the world will rock to its foundations, and therefore our responsibility is heavy, to ourselves, to the world as it is to-day, and to the generations yet unborn.(1905)

Commitment to Tolerance

Ronald Reagan As an older American, I remember a time when people of different race, creed, or ethnic origin in our land found hatred and prejudice installed in social custom and, yes, in law. There is no story more heartening in our history than the progress that we have made toward the"brotherhood of man" that God intended for us. Let us resolve there will be no turning back or hesitation on the road to an America rich in dignity and abundant with opportunity for all our citizens.(1985)

Requirement for Sacrifice

John Kennedy And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.(1961)

Requirement for National Unity

Abraham LincolnWith malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. (1865)

Faith in the Peoples' Wisdom

Abraham Lincoln Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world? In our present differences, is either party without faith of being in the right? If the Almighty Ruler of Nations, with His eternal truth and justice, be on your side of the North, or on yours of the South, that truth and that justice will surely prevail by the judgment of this great tribunal of the American people.(1861)

Worship of the Founding Fathers

Martin Van Buren I tread in the footsteps of illustrious men, whose superiors it is our happiness to believe are not found on the executive calendar of any country. Among them we recognize the earliest and firmest pillars of the Republic—those by whom our national independence was first declared, him who above all others contributed to establish it on the field of battle, and those whose expanded intellect and patriotism constructed, improved, and perfected the inestimable institutions under which we live. (1837)

The President as the Instrument of the People

Franklin Roosevelt The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.(1933)

Excerpts from Robert Bellah's 1967 essay:

Considering the separation of church and state, how is a president justified in using the word “God” at all? The answer is that the separation of church and state has not denied the political realm a religious dimension. Although matters of personal religious belief, worship, and association are considered to be strictly private affairs, there are, at the same time, certain common elements of religious orientation that the great majority of Americans share. These have played a crucial role in the development of American institutions ....

The American civil religion was never anticlerical or militantly secular. On the contrary, it borrowed selectively from the religious tradition in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two. In this way, the civil religion was able to build up without any bitter struggle with the church powerful symbols of national solidarity and to mobilize deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals.

Such an achievement is by no means to be taken for granted. It would seem that the problem of a civil religion is quite general in modern societies and that the way it is solved or not solved will have repercussions in many spheres. One need only to think of France to see how differently things can go. The French Revolution was anticlerical to the core and attempted to set up an anti-Christian civil religion.


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Peter N. Kirstein - 1/18/2005

Of course my phrase was, "war, avarice and torture" but certainly I could have substituted "terror" as well.

I don't entirely agree with Mr Hibberd that presidential inaugural addresses are the equivalent of a toastperson at a party. Like State of the Union presentations, they contain public policy pronouncements and future agenda priorities of the president. I would prefer that these events be cancelled or be construed for what they are: an extravagant exercise to continue the hagiography that Americans have toward the presidency--if not always the occupant.

Loren Hibberd - 1/17/2005

If presidential inaugurals are intended to be celebratory events of a peaceful transition of power, and as a sign of continuity in terms of democratic processes, then I wonder if the criticism that inaugural addresses are not revisionist or sources of critical thinking is misplaced?

Are not these social events as opposed to major policy-formation events? While I agree with Prof. Kirstein about the lack of policy options within the major parties, I wonder if displaying frustration over the matter in terms of inaugural rhetoric might possibly misinterpret the meaning of such guadrennial exercises?

I do agree for with the assessment of "war, avarice and terror" as dominating much of our future. We should have listened to the left before the war.

Arnold Shcherban - 1/17/2005

Good point Mr. Kirstein,

I just would like to add to it, the fact that those class
interests is also the main cause of the double-standard internal and foreign policies that continiously run throughout the history of the US goverments, which the part of the speach of President Lincoln you mentioned, illustrates so well.

Peter N. Kirstein - 1/16/2005

With regard to "the mission" as Mr Pine adroitly noted, here is one from President Lincoln's first inaugural on March 4, 1861 that somehow gets lost in the iconography.

"I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no INCLINATION to do so..."

Contrast this horror with Dr King, whose life we commemorate tomorrow. He felt that laws unjustly conceived should be defied in his appeal to a higher law.

In the same inaugural, President Lincoln appeared to contradict himself in terms of the ironclad rule of law when he stated:

"Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their REVOLUTIONARY RIGHT to dismember or OVERTHROW it."

It is the first statement that belies the iconography; it is the second that provides food for thought as we face the bleary future of war, avarice and torture.

Jonathan Pine - 1/16/2005

America has always believed it has had a mission. But it’s a mission with problems that cannot be solved by the level of the thinking that created them.

Benjamin Franklin was certain that one day America’s grand experiment would someday end in tyranny. Just look at the signs. Challenges that are being met with stereotypical reactions that are increasingly unproductive -- is a sure sign that a civilization is on a downward course.

Peter N. Kirstein - 1/16/2005

I would argue one of the reasons for the thematic similiarity is because American presidents are part of an ongoing ruling class that wishes to maintain the imperium under the dissembling guise of American exceptionalism.

Until there is significant change in America, presidents within this one-party state will resonate as a chorus and not as individuals interested in redistributive justice and an end to state terrorism. I can affirm this; those of us outside the democratic-republican party (you thought that was 19th Century?), will note that presidential inaugural addresses rarely inspire and essentially affirm the arrogance of American power and reflect its failure to develop a politics of humility and global responsibility.