In Saturday’s inaugural address, George W. Bush promised to work to build a single nation of justice and opportunity. The stated reason that this goal was attainable was not Bush’s deftness as a conciliating force, but the fact that “we are guided by a power larger than ourselves who creates us equal in His image.” For audience members who sat through Bush’s 14-minute sermon, Pastor Kirbyjon H. Caldwell’s benediction made it crystal clear that the new president was referring to a Christian God.
At the end of the benediction, those who agreed with the pastor were asked to say “amen” in unison with their fellow Christians who had made the pilgrimage to honor their new leader. One could not avoid the feeling that this was a religious ceremony and not an event in which a simple Texan tidies up the remaining “paperwork” before starting his new job. This feeling barely subsided before Bush deemed Saturday a “national day of prayer.” Besides egregiously violating the first amendment, Bush’s fusion of church and state undermines his ideals of unity and responsibility.
Bush’s assumption that all that those who milled outside the Capitol or watched the inauguration from their warm homes would agree wholeheartedly with not only his statements about God, but also a prayer centered around the Holy Trinity, is inconsistent with his expressed desire to unite our nation. When asking Americans to “seek a common good beyond your comfort,” Bush cannot expect that to stem from common religious beliefs that simply do not exist. Yes, Bush’s inauguration address is allowed to be soft on pragmatics, but it still points to erroneous and frightening foundations of the new president’s thinking.
Although Bush is easy to target as exemplifying the crumbling divide between church and state, the truth is that American political leaders have been chipping away at that divide since the first amendment constructed it. From the time that George Washington claimed in his inaugural address that “no people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States,” America has had a long tradition of presidents who expound the principles of hard work and responsibility as they simultaneously throw up their hands to a larger one which they cannot guide.
Bush provided a distilled version of this hypocrisy in his address. Almost in the same breath, he told the public that “government has great responsibilities for public safety and public health, for civil rights and common schools,” and that “some needs and hurts are so deep they will only respond to a mentor’s touch or a pastor’s prayer.” Bush admitted that he has a job to do but then told the public that, if problems get unmanageable, one should go whine to God. Bush needs to face the reality of his situation: He has an earthly occupation. The goals of his job will be achieved here on Earth?whatever lies beyond that is not an area that he, or any future president, should be attempting to advise Americans one way or the other about.