The Inaugural Speech: Religion's Role in the 'New Era of Responsibility"

Religion's Role in the "New Era of Responsibility"
by Jon Pahl

Barack Obama's inaugural speech signaled a fascinating new twist on an old role for religion in American culture. Platitudes of civil religious discourse, exploited so effectively by recent administrations--"sacrifice," "God's gift of freedom," and the ritual invocation of God's blessing on America--were present, but muted. Obama's chief theme was that religions provide people with spiritual strength to be responsible citizens; to work for the common good.

This was not a speech about mystical union with some millennial destiny. Indeed, Obama's clear articulation that "God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny" means that history is up to us. What America will be depends upon what we do, not what some hidden hand might provide.

This was a speech about the spirituality of work. "What is required of us," the 44th President intoned, "is a new era of responsibility--a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task." The President here argued that it is through our common work that humans find spiritual fulfillment, this side of eternity.

No less than ten times Obama invoked "work," "works," or "workers." "Everywhere we look, there is work to be done." It is not in "worn out dogmas" that one can find the American spirit, he asserted, but "the faith and determination of the American people" is evident in "the kindness to take in a stranger . . . the selflessness of workers . . . [a] firefighter's courage." "Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America."

The last line--an oblique reference to a Langston Hughes poem, might seem to invoke the old Horatio Alger version of the Protestant ethic. In fact, Obama's religious foundation was intentionally pluralistic. 'We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus--and non-believers." Such a "patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness." But if and when people of faith commit to work together with unbelievers toward a vision of a more just and virtuous common good, we might see how "old hatreds shall someday pass;" how "lines of tribe shall soon dissolve;" how "our common humanity shall reveal itself;" and how "America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace."

There is in such a vision plenty of the old American millennialism. But the stronger voice was this practical assertion: "greatness is never given. It must be earned." And this pragmatic question: it is "not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."

The world Barack Obama addressed with this speech was not just the American nation and its future. Invoking George Washington's words at Valley Forge, it was "the future world" broadly envisioned that he had in mind. And that meant that Americans needed to "set aside childish things," in the words of Paul's First Letter to the Church at Corinth. It was time to get to work enacting the substance of faith, hope, and love--beyond mere rhetoric of sounding gongs and clanging cymbals that had merely sustained the wealthy--"those who prefer leisure over work"--under a cloak of religious pretense.


Brad Hart said…
It was a wonderful inauguration. I especially liked the part where Chief Justice Roberts messed up the Oath of Office...OOPS!!!

Maybe he was too busy thinking about the fact that the man he was swearing in opposed his confirmation to the Supreme Court???
Phil said…
Great thoughts, Jon. Good to see you blogging again, and as usual offering insightful and keen analysis.

I especially like how you point out that millennial themes were still in the speech--or at least hints of it--but more visible was a pragmatic, socially engaged sort of civic faith that seeks to act responsibly both at home and abroad.
Anonymous said…
Already in his remarks on Sunday and then again on MLK day, Obama struck similar themes. You don't suppose that he has read something by ML on vocation, has he?
Anonymous said…
Strangely enough, the civics part of Obama's speech sounded a lot like Bush's original compassionate conservatism. Come to think of it, the speech's foreign policy emphasis on American leadership and solidarity with people yearning to be free echoed the post-911 Bush.

I think people rightly see this election as a rejection of the Bush years, but I also wonder in what ways Bush has actually achieved the alteration of many underlying political assumptions. History will provide perspective, I guess.

I also heard Bush (a la 2000-01) in the call for smart, effective government to replace the debate over big vs. small government as well as the call for a post-partisan, post-ideological approach. Of course, Clinton sounded these themes as well. Anything new under the sun? But perhaps Obama will be the man who actually realizes this rhetoric. Time will tell.
Anonymous said…
Any thoughts on Rick Warren's invocation? It seemed to me to reflect the essential narcissism of American evangelicals: it's all about what Jesus did for me. The ham-handed bit of intercultural sensitivity by referring to Jesus in Hebrew and Arabic only heightened the offensiveness of declaring Christianity the state religion today. But then in Pastor Rick's world, Itzhak Perlman is damned to hell by Rick's "God of love."
John G. Turner said…
I thought Warren's prayer was sensitive, inclusive, and sometimes eloquent. I imagine those offended by it are offended by Warren (and his theology / previous statements) rather than by anything he said yesterday.

That said, I'm not a big fan of ceremonial prayer, because it makes no sense. Jesus seemed much more in favor of prayers offered in private. Prayers have to be of a particular faith to make any sense, but particularism doesn't make sense when a goodly portion of the crowd doesn't share that faith. I enjoy the traditionalism of our civil religion and am not eager to see all aspects of it rooted out, but there will be increasing dissonance as our nation continues to become more religiously diverse.

I partly agree with Manlius's comments on Obama's speech. I thought the speech was fairly mundane, except for the portions on race (i.e., reflecting on the fact that his father wouldn't have enjoyed equality). I don't think the crowd expected the somber tone, which was noteworthy. The speech was historic because of the one delivering it, not because of its content. But that's enough to make it extremely historic!

I'm more skeptical that "Bush has actually achieved the alteration of many underlying political assumptions." I think in their inaugural speeches, for instance, both Bush and Obama tapped into deep wells of continuity and American idealism. But even if it was subtle, Obama made several pointed jabs against Bush's policies. Even if his new era won't be fully new, I'm still expecting a lot of change.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous, I think you're being a little too hard on Warren's prayer. The part about what Jesus did for him was merely an awkward attempt at being true to his own conscience in offering a Christian prayer and being mindful that this was a civic occasion. One may quibble with how he pulled that off, but I, for one, could appreciate his intention. (I've prayed at interfaith gatherings before, and my approach is to say, "While respecting people of different beliefs, I offer this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ." It's a lot less complicated than what Warren did.)

IMHO, we should tell people who offer prayers at civic occasions to be true to their own conscience and pray according to their own faith. The listeners can then fully or partially assent to the prayer, simply ignore it, or perhaps reapply in their own mind the prayer's content to their particular way of praying.

The Gene Robinson method of "O God of our many understandings" is a farce. Does he affirm Molech or the Mayan sun god and their demand for human sacrifice? Does he affirm the Wahhabi version of Islam's god? For that matter, is he really praying to the god of the evangelicals? This method of prayer appears broad but is actually as narrow as those praying it, since they place themselves over any faith tradition.
Anonymous said…
"We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus--and non-believers." Such a "patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness."

I jotted down the name of the blog you showed us in class, Jon, and I love this quote. Americans follow so many different beliefs and I think that it is important that our president realizes that. Though I do not follow a specific religion (what would be considered a "non-believer"), I do have my own beliefs... And I think that believers and non-believers will be able to work together successfully to create a "common good," as you called it. I enjoyed our first class and I am excited for the semester. I think that some amazing things come to topic and I look forward to discussing these issues further.
Jon Pahl said…
On Rick Warren: "Bloviating" is the word that came to my mind. It was too long and tortured--artless. Lowery, on the other hand, was magisterial, magnificent, magnanimous, and majestic.
Anonymous said…
I did like Lowery. However, one has to wonder what the reaction would have been had Warren been the one to refer to the "yellow" and the "red" man.
John Fea said…
I blogged a bit about Warren prayer at
James Aune said…
Manlius, how can you say that Rick Warren is "sensitive and inclusive" just because he can say "Jesus" in Arabic and Hebrew? He's still sending the message the Musliims and Jews are damned, and unwelcome in the evangelical promised land.
Anonymous said…
James Aune, I'm confused. I didn't use the words "sensitive and inclusive" and I didn't make any mention of Warren saying Jesus in Arabic and Hebrew. Why are you addressing me?

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