The God of Inaugural Addresses

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus died last Thursday at age 72. For almost half a century he stood against the conventional view that religion should be barred from the public square. First Things Journal, which he founded in 1990, has served this cause in all quarters of the Church–Catholic, Evangelical, and Orthodox–providing thoughtful reflection at the crossroads of theology and public life. The following post is in honor of Rev. Neuhaus.

Those who would remove the Decalogue from American court houses turn a blind eye to the nation’s official practice of invoking God’s guidance and care. Here is evidence of that tradition, a tradition increasingly disparaged in the public square. These brief expressions are gleaned from the inaugural addresses of United States presidents.1 Without a single exception, these elected presidents have honored God on this solemn occasion.2

George Washington (1789) “that Almighty Being . . . whose providential aids can supply every human defect ”; John Adams (1797) “to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service”; Thomas Jefferson (1801) “And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best”; James Madison (1809) “the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being”; James Monroe (1817) “fervent prayers to the Almighty that He will be graciously pleased to continue to us that protection”; John Quincy Adams (1825) “knowing that ‘except the Lord keep the city the watchman waketh but in vain’”3; Andrew Jackson (1833) “that He will so overrule all my intentions and actions and inspire the hearts of my fellow-citizens that we may be preserved from dangers”; Martin Van Buren (1837) “the Divine Being whose strengthening support I humbly solicit”; William Henry Harrison (1841) “a profound reverence for the Christian religion”; James K. Polk (1845) “to guard this Heaven-favored land against the mischiefs which without His guidance might arise from an unwise public policy”; Zachary Taylor (1849) “prosperity to which the goodness of Divine Providence has conducted our common country”; Franklin Pierce (1853) “no national security but in the nation’s humble, acknowledged dependence upon God”; James Buchanan (1857) “humbly invoking the blessing of Divine Providence”; Abraham Lincoln (1861) “Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him who has never yet forsaken this favored land”; Ulysses S. Grant (1869) “I ask the prayers of the nation to Almighty God”; Rutherford B. Hayes (1877) “Looking for the guidance of that Divine Hand”; James A. Garfield (1881) “invoke the support and blessings of Almighty God”; Grover Cleveland (1885) “humbly acknowledging the power and goodness of Almighty God”; Benjamin Harrison (1889) “God has placed upon our head a diadem and has laid at our feet power and wealth . . . But we must not forget . . .”; William McKinley (1897) “no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers . . . as we obey His commandments and walk humbly in His footsteps”; Theodore Roosevelt (1905) “with gratitude to the Giver of Good”; William Howard Taft (1909) “the aid of the Almighty God”; Woodrow Wilson (1913) “I pray God I may be given the wisdom and the prudence to do my duty”; Warren G. Harding (1921) “ ‘What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?’”4; Calvin Coolidge (1925) “armed, not with the sword, but with the cross”; Herbert Hoover (1929) “I ask the help of Almighty God”; Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1945) “we pray to Him now for the vision to see our way clearly . . . to the achievement of His will”; Harry S. Truman (1949) “all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God”; Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953) “I ask that you bow your heads. Almighty God, . . .”; John F. Kennedy (1961) “the command of Isaiah—to ‘undo the heavy burdens . . .’”5; Lyndon Baines Johnson (1965) “the judgment of God is harshest on those who are most favored . . . ‘Give me now wisdom and knowledge’”6; Richard Milhous Nixon (1969) “the glory of man’s first sight of the world as God sees it”: Jimmy Carter (1977) “a timeless admonition from the ancient prophet Micah”7; Ronald Reagan (1981) “We are a nation under God . . . on each Inauguration Day in future years it should be declared a day of prayer”; George Herbert Walker Bush (1989) “my first act as President is a prayer”; William Jefferson Clinton (1993) “The Scripture says, ‘And let us not be weary in well-doing . . .’”8; George W. Bush (2001) “We are not this story’s author, who fills time and eternity with his purpose . . . This story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm.”9

Footnotes:

1 The Presidents Speak: The Inaugural Addresses of the American Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush, annotated by David Newton Lott (Los Angeles: Olive Grove Publishing, 2002). Inaugural speeches also found at http://www.bartleby.com/124/.

2 John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, Andrew Johnson, Chester A. Arthur, and Gerald Ford do not appear since, as Vice Presidents, they assumed office upon the death or resignation of the President. They were not subsequently elected President and so were not inaugurated.

3 Psalm 127:1b.

4 Micah 6:8.

5 Isaiah 61:1b.

6 Solomon, from 2 Chronicles 1:10.

7 Micah 6:8.

8 Galatians 6:9.

9 Nahum 1:3.

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