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A Great President’s Second Inaugural Address

Soon after the 2012 election a Perspectives editor asked me to write about the diminished role overt faith had in presidential campaign discourse. He thought I shared his disappointment in the Obama campaign’s reluctance to use Christian rhetoric and (his description) “almost total disregard for the Christian community.”

Turning down the request, I offered a contrary view that the diminished “God talk” of the Obama and Romney campaigns might be good. The limited religious rhetoric was consistent with the two major party candidates’ apparently sincere but private faiths. These private faiths seemed to have no independent inf luence on their policy positions, as all their views were comfortably in the mainstream of their respective parties. It seemed refreshing that neither Obama nor Romney used God talk as a strategy to “humanize” the candidate and appeal to swing voters–the usual ways it is deployed in campaigns.

But, eager to please, I suggested I might write a different essay, perhaps ref lecting on Obama’s second inaugural address as a springboard to comment on God talk in American political discourse today. As a Reformed Christian, I affirm that people’s religious faith is vital to how they see the world and carry out their profession. My tradition looks for public officials who can articulate how their faith shapes their view of government and how it inf luences their treatment of other political actors.

I have the audacity to hope for three things. First, I would like a national politician to note that we are a nation with a limited government designed to encourage both personal responsibility and caring voluntary associations. Our founders intended government to be limited–not because they hated “big government” as such but rather to encourage citizen virtues of generosity and care.

Second, I would like a national political voice to appreciate the roles of other governments and the voluntary sector in meeting public purposes. Today the typical state government’s reach into the lives of its citizens, at least in terms of tax levels, is as large as that of the federal government. The state and local tax burden in my home state of Michigan, for example, is about 17 percent of state domestic product. The federal government takes in about the same share of gross domestic product (although it expends quite a bit more). Add to this the Christian tithe of 10 percent of gross income–which seems to me a fair expectation–and it is clear that the national government is not the only place to help Christians to love our neighbors financially.

Third, though the president is the most powerful Washington politician, he cannot do much alone. A national politician should acknowledge these limitations and work hard to cultivate good relations with other power centers. Excessively using God language to defend specific fiscal views, for example, seems at least politically unwise.

One of the important things the Reformed Christian faith points out is that one of sin’s chief consequences is that we do not see things as they really are. Our knowledge and opinions are distorted, perhaps especially so in today’s political world, with its deep and distorting financial and emotional commitments.

Could it be that the two strongest Reformed Christian contributions to political discourse should be intellectual humility and personal graciousness? President Obama is an obviously talented president with a faith that at several points seems much like my own. But I have not often heard a message like that. As I write this, the president has just started a new “charm offensive” that sounds promising, although the skeptic in me notes that it comes in the wake of declining public approval.

Disappointed by Obama’s message in his own second inaugural, I am led to a different second inaugural, delivered at a time of even greater social strife. Today we are not fighting over the fundamental dignity of human beings, but today’s disagreements are very real, and Lincoln’s 1865 address seems an exemplary explanation of what God might see as the duty of national political leadership at such a time as this.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. . . . The Almighty has His own purposes. . . .
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, . . . to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln’s second inaugural address affirms that a great president can articulate the complexities of political action from a Christian perspective– simultaneously believing divine inspiration informs his views and knowing he could be wrong in that belief. From that awareness a Christian political strategy arises that treats political adversaries with charity and grace in a necessary first step to address the nation’s political problems. Is this too much to ask?

Douglas Koopman works in the president’s office at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.