Political pundits and the blogosphere treat every speech as a make-or-break moment, especially when the president is involved. Yet with a divided electorate, rancorous division in Congress, uncertainty about the upcoming debt-limit negotiations, well-founded fears about the sustainability of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, and our collective shock at the tragedy in Newtown, President Obama's Second Inaugural Address will be a defining moment of his presidency.
The president has a moment, perhaps his last, to bring Americans together. In a speech that should incorporate but ultimately transcend his policy goals for the second term, he has an opportunity to chart out a course for civility and common purpose that seems largely missing from our public life. One question is whether and how he will use the Bible in this effort.
Many presidents takes the oath of office with the Bible opened to a particular passage, and there is a running list of the choices they have made throughout our nation's history. Yet a more relevant issue is the actual citation of Scripture in the speech. The selection of biblical verses and the manner in which a president employs them are among the more fascinating and revealing aspects of the inaugural address.
The citation of a biblical passage usually occurs in the service of a core goal. In the midst of financial disaster four years ago, President Obama sought to elevate our national discourse by appealing 1 Corinthians 13: "We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things." In his first address, President Clinton called Americans to action and national service by using Paul's language from Galatians: "The Scripture says, 'And let us not be weary in well-doing, for in due season, we shall reap, if we faint not.'" President Carter alluded twice to the prophet Micah's call for justice, kindness and humility, as the new leader attempted to heal the wounds of Watergate and bring Americans into greater solidarity. None of these leaders addressed a more embittered nation than the one President Obama will speak to on Jan. 21.
Referencing Scripture is certainly not a litmus test of a president's personal faith or commitment to humble leadership. For example, both Presidents Eisenhower and George H.W. Bush opened their speeches with simple yet eloquent prayers that reflected their earnest hopes for the nation.
Out of respect for our religious diversity, a case can be made that Scripture has no place in this speech. Many Americans do not adhere to the Bible as the Word of God, whether because of a different faith tradition or no religious beliefs at all. Yet the Bible already lies at the center of the inauguration ceremony, and it will be noteworthy to see if its role on Jan. 21 is substantive as well as symbolic.
As we pause at one of the more uncertain moments in our nation's history, perhaps a biblical verse or two can provide us with common purpose, just as it did in the most famous of these addresses, Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural in 1865. Lincoln also spoke to a divided and weary nation at the end of the Civil War, and he cited many biblical verses as a means of bringing people together. Toward the end of the speech, he called for an end to bitterness by appealing to the Sermon on the Mount: "Let us judge not, that we be not judged."
President Obama turned to Scripture multiple times in perhaps the finest and most important speech of his presidency, when he addressed the families of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary. Now he has the world stage for a few moments that will set the larger template for his second term.
If he decides to incorporate a biblical verse or two into the speech, some will see it as opportunistic showmanship in the wake of insurmountable challenges. Yet oratory has the power to lead us to higher ground, and past inauguration speeches, especially Lincoln's, have shown that a humble address, drawing on a president's faith as expressed in the Bible, can appeal to "the better angels of our nature."