Within all this ceremonial excitement and mixed emotions that obviously differs from one presidential inauguration to another, there is one thing that remains the same since George Washington was inaugurated in 1789, and that is the as part of the ceremony, and that’s the swearing in with the inaugural Bible. We do find this quite baffling though, after all separation of church and state has for a very long time been portrayed as a keystone of democracy in the U.S. It’s true that interpretations of the the phrase that was coined by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 have been very ambiguous and even controversial, however the basic concept is very clear: the government and any formal institution should keep a neutral attitude towards any religious practices, as stated in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It’s pretty much a safe distance between any organized religion and state.
Why is it then, that the inauguration ceremony consists of so many religious cues if the nation state claims to have such a strong wall between the Church and the State? Let’s take a look at the latest ceremony for example, where the 45th President was sworn at the U.S Capitol in Washington D.C.
Everyone knows it’s not a real party without the right music, so to set the tone and add some ambiance, there were a couple of religious choirs, one was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir,and the second was The Washington National Cathedral Choir of Men who sang “God Bless America.” Moreover, there were six members who are faith leaders that were invited to take part of the ceremony, which is a relatively high number compared to previous ceremonies. In fact, two of the six who were evangelical Christians, had biblical passages mentioned.
Later came the swearing in on the bible, where the oath was ended on a religious note with the phrase “So help me God.” This decision to end it that way has become more of a tradition that goes back to George Washington’s days, rather than a law requirement. The Inaugural Address also included a couple of references to faith. Before the public swearing-in, it’s also part of the ritual for the First Family to attend a private and spiritual prayer at the St. John’s Episcopal Church just across from the White House. In fact, since Franklin Roosevelt, President Richard Nixon was the only one who didn’t attend these services as part of the Inauguration Day rituals.
Perhaps it’s the need to appeal for the mass or even the desire to demonstrate diversity, either way, even if it contradicts the core meaning of ‘separation of Church and State’, there is something always beautiful about traditions, whether you’re a believer on an atheist.