Barack Obama and the spirit of Abraham Lincoln
Today the Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.
But as the world’s media is focused on the eternal hopes and Olympian aspirations of the man, Cranmer wishes to highlight on two aspects of this event – the spectre of Abraham Lincoln and the ceremonial use of the Holy Bible.
The significance easily escapes a nation which has ceased to express its historic faith – indeed, has developed a culture which is positively hostile to Christianity and makes its adherents ashamed to express their faith in the public sphere. British prime ministers no longer ‘do God’. The Head of State was ‘sworn in’ on the Holy Bible in an age when oaths were taken on pain of divine or preternatural wrath, and people believed in them. Her successor wishes to be ‘sworn in’ on the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, the Gita, the Upanishads and the Beano. The magic has gone.
But Barack Obama has chosen to be sworn in on the Holy Bible, and he will invoke God. He is not obliged to do either; he has chosen to. And (unlike Bishop Gene Robinson) he apparently does not care about those he may offend by doing so.
It is heartening to see politicians fearlessly treading where clerics have ceased to.
The US Constitution does not require a Bible, but it has become tradition.
There have been a few lawsuits attempting to oblige the Chief Justice – who will administer the Oath of Office– from adding ‘so help me God’ to the constitutionally prescribed presidential oath (Art. II, Sec. 1). They have also sought to declare unconstitutional the use of clergy to deliver an invocation and benediction.
But all this is trivia and tittle-tattle.
Barack Obama is not being sworn in on just any old Bible, like most of his predecessors. He is to use the very tome used by Abraham Lincoln at his inauguration of 1861. He will be the first incoming president in 147 years to use the Lincoln Bible, and he has chosen to do so because he intends pursuing Lincoln’s themes of national unity, arguing that the US Constitution was created ‘to form a more perfect Union’.
Bizarrely, Mr Obama will travel to his inauguration via the same route that Lincoln took, and will also eat lunch off replicas of the Lincolns' White House china.
The spirit of Lincoln will be as immanent as the Spirit of God.
Most presidents have sworn the Oath of Office upon a Bible which had personal or political significance – usually the family Bible. Theodore Roosevelt exceptionally swore on nothing, and John Quincy Adams, although a Christian, took his presidential oath upon a "Volume of Laws", declaring that he was elected to preserve, protect and defend the US Constitution.
Adams’ choice of ‘unholy’ writ was unique, since those who were not sworn in on the Bible (however hastily) all laid their hands on something which they considered ‘holy’. Lyndon B. Johnson took his oath aboard Air Force 1 upon a Missal – the Roman Catholic liturgical book – because it was all that was found in President Kennedy’s airplane bedroom.
Harding was sworn in on the Bible used by George Washington in 1789. Eisenhower, Carter and Bush Snr all doubled up, using the Washington Bible along with their family bibles. Clinton used his grandmother’s Bible, and Coolidge, Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan all used bibles from the maternal sides of their families.
The Bible has now become intrinsic to the inauguration ceremony, so much so that more questions would be asked about a presidential candidate who purposely eschewed it than would ever be asked of a candidate who deploys it. History still notes that Franklin Pierce broke with precedent in 1853 when he chose not to kiss the Bible.
As Barack Obama is sworn in, the world shall witness a ceremony which has evolved its own sacred liturgy. It has been adapted over the years just as the Coronation Ceremony of the United Kingdom has been - to better suit the spirit of age and the idiosyncracies of the anointed one. The irony is that in the UK there are calls for the sacred Christian ceremony and anointing to be replaced with a more ‘modern’ secular or ‘multi-faith’ affair, while in the United States the Bible has become more prominent and the God invoked is distinctly and unashamedly the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Cranmer wishes President Obama well, and he encourages all of his readers and communicants to pray for him as they are exhorted:
Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time, for which I was appointed a preacher and an apostle — I am speaking the truth in Christ and not lying — a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth (1Tim 2: 1-7).