Place Your Right Hand: The Religious and Material Culture of the Inauguration Ceremony

Today's post comes from our newest contributor. Cara L. Burnidge is a doctoral candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University. Currently, Cara is an Assistant to the Editors for Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture and a Lecturer at Florida A&M University. Her dissertation examines the relationship between religion and U.S. foreign policy in the early twentieth century by examining the life and career of President Woodrow Wilson. 

Place Your Right Hand On….?
by Cara L. Burnidge

 As the Beltway prepares for President Obama’s second inauguration, several news organizations are investigating the ceremonialism of the swearing in process. The conversation seems quite relevant to RiAH readers—and not merely because it’s about religion-in-general.  
Focusing on this one-day event we can see the shifts in the American religious landscape relevant to much of our scholarship and, I imagine, to our students’ questions about religion in United States. Take for instance, the issue of the benediction (setting aside for the moment the question of why one must be given at all….I’m looking at you civil religion scholars). The inaugural committee has already come under fire for selecting Reverend Louie Giglio, pastor of Passion City Church in Atlanta, GA. Not long after it became clear this evangelical pastor was the lead contender, the inaugural committee received major criticism because of statements Giglio made in the 1990s against homosexuality, insisting that homosexuality was “anti-Christian.” He is no longer slated to give his benediction. Trying to avoid the criticisms of 2009, in which Rick Warren offered a benediction despite his public stance against homosexuality, the committee is currently looking for a replacement. The Huffington Post’s Religion Blog has offered its own list of contenders and rightly asks “Who Can Pray for America?” This is, of course, not to say that I endorse any of the benediction candidates, but rather to emphasize the fascinating public debate over who’s religious beliefs are acceptable in the public square.
Which leads to example number two: the material culture of swearing in a public servant. Catherine Poe of the Washington Post has noted that when it comes to Obama’s second inauguration there will be “three Bibles and two oaths.” On Sunday, January 20 Obama will be sworn in using the First Lady’s family Bible. The Robinson family Bible will join a long list of family Bibles used in presidential inaugurations. For the public ceremony, however, Obama will give his oath of office by placing his hand upon two Bibles: the Lincoln Bible (that he used for his first inauguration) and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “travelling Bible.” It’s likely that the Lincoln Bible will be placed atop King’s Bible due to their varying sizes and not necessarily their weighted significance. The ceremony will be doubly historic as Obama takes his second oath of office on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, adding to the mystique of a historic trajectory between Lincoln, King, and Obama. While news outlets speculate on that story, I think there’s an interesting monograph waiting to be written about the materiality of religion in public sphere based on the objects used for the swearing in process. As the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies released the list of Bibles used in inaugural ceremonies, the list of “family” Bibles alone makes me wonder about the elite (heretofore white) culture surrounding public office; the inaugurations in which no Bible was used at all (like John Quincy Adams who used a mysterious sounding “volume of law”) makes me think more should be said about precisely how civil religion is at play; or the performance of what Tracy Fessenden called “nonspecific” Protestantism.
Given the renewed interest in Liberal Protestantism at the AHA/ASCH and the “Religious Diversity in Congress” (including the swearing in of the first “None” Congressperson), I think its time that we reconsider the way in which we study the religious-ness (religious-ish-ness?) of those in politics, considering not just that religion plays a critical role in public ceremonies, but the kind of authorial and material role it plays.


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