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Jennifer G. Bird Headshot

So We Are a Christian Nation?

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I joined the millions who deeply and genuinely celebrated the second inauguration of President Barack H. Obama last Monday. There were many components of his speech that I resonated with and was thrilled to hear President Obama proclaim. Thus, this editorial is not about the person holding the office of president or even about the role of president in our country. It is about the underlying contradictions at work for us as a country when it comes to the mixing, or separation of, "church and state." This confusion was striking for me as I watched the inaugural celebration.

For instance, Charles Schumer's opening words ended with, "Thank you, and God bless these United States." Certainly one does not have to be a Christian in order to echo his prayer, but the request that God -- of the Judeo-Christian tradition? -- would bless us as a nation implies that other nations are specifically not to be blessed. Does it not? More importantly, though, is the very issue that God -- a divine being -- is invoked in a national event that is actually about the human being that we, as a nation, elected to be our leader. What is at stake in constantly requiring that God's name is invoked throughout this political ceremony inaugurating the leader of all Americans?

Myrlie Evers-Williams, the civil rights leader, who has, I do not doubt, done a great deal of difficult and collaborative work over the years, chose to close her prayer: "in Jesus' name, in the name of all who are holy and right, we pray. Amen." Though creatively inclusive, the fact that Jesus' name is invoked at all brings Christian identity to the fore in an instant.

As amazing as the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir is, as soon as they began the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," singing that ever resounding first line, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord," I was immediately conflicted. The hymn is moving and represents an historical moment in our country's development. But the words of the hymn -- the coming of the Lord, etc. -- are also certainly grounded in Christian tradition. The last stanza, "In the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me; as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, while God is marching on," draws upon various elements of the Christian faith, not to mention valorizing the ever victorious "God" who marches on -- to battle, I must note.

"America the Beautiful" is such a beautiful and inspiring song. But the final line, as sung last Monday, is not only the summation of the underlying vision of the song, but is also quite telling: "protect us by thy might, great God, our King." Certainly, the biblical connection, here, referring to God as King is clear. But isn't this line out of place given that we do not operate our country based on having a king running it? The only other way to embrace this ideal is through endorsing the Judeo-Christian tradition.

While the Rev. Luis Leon's benediction made no specific references to Christ or to Jesus, he did repeatedly convey through his words his belief that it is only with God's gracious presence that we, as a nation, will be able to be kind, loving and self-giving, or to be able to work to create mutual, respectful regard for one another. In other words, someone stood on a national stage and contributed powerfully to the fallacy that only those who worship God can be just and loving and righteous. One can find multiple examples, in the history of the Church, of precedence for such misrepresentations of non-majority religious belief systems. I thought we were a country founded on not judging people accordingly.

The gender of the God who is referenced, prayed to and celebrated throughout the inauguration is also of note, though I must refrain from addressing this issue fully, here. For now, I do wonder how many people are aware that when we refer to God as "he" (assume that God is male) we are actually being counter-productive in terms of working toward gender equality in any form in our Union. There is much to be said for the terminology we use to refer to God. It has power. It affects us and the way we envision the world and what is possible. Though it took me some time and much reading of critical theory to see the veracity of this statement, I do think it is true: "If God is male, then Male is god" (M. Daly). Referring to God as male, perpetuating the idea that we must refer to God in male terms, actually serves to perpetuate male dominance over females (and those culturally perceived to be "female" or effeminate). It is, therefore, striking to me that most of the participants in the inaugural ceremony attached male-ness to God. Yet one would expect them to do so, since that is also part-and-parcel of the traditional beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

I care deeply about the effects our language for talking about God has on how we interact as human beings. I also care deeply about how we bring religious convictions into our collective arenas. It seems to me that these are issues we can no longer overlook in our public and political discourse.