Inauguration day is America’s unique day of hope. Whatever the speech, whoever the president-elect: a key player in every inauguration day is bound to be the Almighty and his right hand man: Hope.
I wrote that four years ago in a newspaper story published the morning of George W. Bush’s second inauguration.
Barack Obama made “hope” his watchword. And that makes him more like all the other presidents than many might expect.
Trying to find a common thread among all those many inauguration day speeches, it occurred to me that “hope” was the most common thread linking all of America’s presidents.
We Americans don’t discuss hope much. Hope, it seems, is for sissies. Americans like action: like John Wayne kicking in the bad guy’s door, six-shooter in hand.
And some people shy away from discussing hope because the concept of hope puts one on the road to prayer and this, WE KNOW, is taboo to a segment of the world’s population.
But there is a day, every four years, when Americans celebrate hope. And that day is Inauguration Day.
And we listen to our elected president’s words. We judge our president-elect by these, his first words, as our commander in chief.
In history, there are many themes that seem to resonate through the inaugural addresses. Education, poverty, crime, war, and peace all appear over and over in inauguration day speeches. But the importance of God’s guidance and the wonderful goodness of hope permeates many of the great American inaugural addresses.
We should not be surprised that many presidents invoke the name of God, maybe even offer a prayer themselves for the success of the nation (and their presidency?), and offer us hope at the inauguration. Their task is looming large; their support sometimes fleeting. One might wonder at the overconfident man in such a difficult situation. Normal men ask for God’s help and offer us all a hopeful vision of the future.
On January 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said, “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.” He asked us to answer a “call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle, year in and year out, ‘rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation’ –a struggle against the common enemies of man: tyranny, poverty, disease and war itself.”
On another January 20, in 1969, Richard M. Nixon reminded us, “Forces now are converging that make possible, for the first time, the hope that many of man’s deepest aspirations can at last be realized.” He also said, “We see the hope of tomorrow in the youth of today.”
President Lincoln, in his second inaugural, looked with hope at the end of the Civil War. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and for his orphans, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Lincoln delivered these words on March 4, 1865. Just one month and 10 days after he delivered this speech, on April 14, Lincoln was assassinated.
President Eisenhower evoked hope. On January 20, 1953, he reminded the nation that “we view our Nation’s strength and security as a trust upon which rests the hope of free men everywhere.”
President James A. Garfield suggested a halt in the march of mankind, just for a moment, to reflect upon the importance of hope. In his March 4, 1881 inaugural, he said, “Before continuing the onward march let us pause on this height for a moment to strengthen our faith and renew our hope by a glance at the pathway along which our people have traveled.”
Inauguration day is a day of hope and prayer. No other day in American life is so steeped in prayer. No other day in the American calendar so often reverberates with the theme of hope.
Oh, many moments in American life begin with prayer: including the opening of House and Senate sessions in the capitol. But at our inaugurations, one can feel the sincerity of men thrust into the maelstrom. Greater Washington seems to become a great cathedral of hope and prayer: before it immediately returns to a nation that separates church and state.
What, exactly, is hope? You can’t buy anything with it and nobody can prove that it helps you in life. So what is hope?
Hope is an amputee veteran of the war in Iraq who wants to learn to ski. Hope is the cancer victim who won’t give in. Hope keeps the terminally ill calm and the pinned- down platoon together. Hope is the antithesis of despair, the enemy of our darkest fears.
Hope and prayer drive my friend in South Carolina to fight his multiple sclerosis.
Hope is one of those emotions unique to mankind. It sometimes defies reason and fights off evil thoughts of surrender.
Prayer goes hand-in-hand with hope; and America was founded by men deeply governed by their hope and prayer and belief in God.
The Founding Fathers established the United States, wrote the Declaration of Independence; the Bill of Rights and the Constitution; and created a nation firmly rooted in the belief in God and freedom of religion protected by the separation of church and state.
Many of the Founders and their forefathers fled Europe to escape religious prosecution. They wanted this new nation to allow them freedom of religion and thus the very nation is rooted in a belief in God.
The Declaration of Independence starts this way: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the Earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
After signing the Declaration of Independence, Samuel Adams, who was called “the firebrand of the American Revolution,” affirmed his obedience to God by stating, “We have this day restored the Sovereign to whom alone men ought to be obedient. From the rising to the setting of the sun, may His kingdom come.”
James Madison, the fourth president, made the following statement, “We have staked the whole of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”
Madison is often referred to as “The Father of Our Constitution.”
When historians at the University of Houston conducted a 10-year study of the ideas that shaped our republic, they found 94 percent of the Founding Fathers’ quotes in 15,000 documents were based on the Bible.”God created all men equal,” one of the most fundamental and important acclamations of our government, became an underlying reason for the Civil War, a fundamental reason for the Emancipation Proclamation and a keynote of equality ever since.
Every president of the United States is sworn into office, by reciting an oath while he has one hand on the Bible. The oath ends, “So help me God.”
Every session of Congress since 1777 commenced with a prayer by a minister paid by the taxpayers.Every military service of the United States pays uniformed religious ministers for the officers and men in service. These ministers are from all faiths that recognize the importance of God in human life. Nearly every base has a chapel.
The Ten Commandments are carved into the doors of the Supreme Court and appear prominently in the court’s chambers.
Every piece of U.S. currency bears the words “In God We Trust.”
In America, you are even free to start your own religion. Nobody (except possibly the Internal Revenue Service) will interfere, so long as you don’t do anything outside the normal bounds of decent behavior.
So, as we all celebrate the blessings of American freedom, justice and government every day, perhaps we should reflect upon the roots and tenets of our democracy. We are not a Godless people. Or are we?
Yes, our democracy is evolving and we are open and accepting to that evolution. But let us not allow the evolution to turn into a careless revolution or even an unintended erosion of the principles by which we live and we are governed.
I am one of those historians that thinks the Founders were pretty smart. Their belief in God, hope and prayer encourages me every day.
So help me God.
John E. Carey
Peace and Freedom