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Wednesday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris wasn’t church, but there were moments when it sure felt like it. It wasn’t so much the wordy invocation, the powerful benediction, or even the massive Biden family Bible on which the new president took his oath (though none of those things would be out of place in church). Those were the formalities, however impressive.
But at two points of the brief inaugural ceremony, something striking happened. One involved a saint from fifth-century Roman Africa, the other a country singer from 20th-century Tulsa. Together they offered a word of warning and hope, along with a glimpse of a role for Christianity in American politics that upended cliches about conservative Christianity and liberal secularism.
The religious elements of the event shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Joe Biden has never made a secret of his Catholic faith. In his speech after being declared the presumptive winner of the election, he quoted from “On Eagles’ Wings,’’ a hymn loved (and sometimes hated) by many Catholic and mainline Protestant churchgoers, but not exactly well known by anyone else. He invited Republican and Democratic congressional leaders to attend Mass with him at St. Matthew’s Cathedral on the morning of the inauguration. Biden’s public piety is not especially clever or persuasive. It looks and sounds like many years of showing up on Sunday.
But none of that prepared me for hearing him quote St. Augustine of Hippo, “a saint of my church,” as Biden called him, in his inaugural address. A people, according to the great and influential North African theologian and bishop, is “a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.” Augustine wrote these words in his great book The City of God, looking back on the sweep of Roman history, near the end of his life and the end of Rome’s rule in his homeland. The new president put this ancient observation to noble use, saying we should be bound by our love of “opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honor” and “the truth.”
I have heard Scripture and hymns quoted by all kinds of politicians, but I’d never heard this.
These are good things to love, and I know Augustine himself could not object. But there’s a melancholy warning in Augustine’s words. He was writing about the fall of Rome, like the commonwealths that had reigned before it. For all of them, loving good things was not enough, because they did not love God and their neighbor. If opportunity, security, liberty and the rest are our highest goals, Augustine cautions readers then and now, we won’t keep them any more than Rome did.
Presidents always need to find a place to stand in the American religious landscape. George W. Bush stressed his personal faith. Barack Obama wove Scripture into his depictions of American history as an unfolding story of struggle and inclusion. Donald Trump was the rare president with no particular aptitude for talking about religion. He courted conservative evangelical leaders and voters vigorously, offering to do the things they wanted in exchange for their support, without talking about faith itself.
At Wednesday’s inauguration, the Christians who may have felt left out of this bargain got a turn at setting the rhetorical agenda. If nothing else, it was a reminder that Christians whose faith commitments lead them to advocate for racial justice, the rights of migrants and the health of the environment do exist. This may not constitute a “religious left” that is equivalent in influence or organization to the religious right, but it’s a voice that speaks to people week after week and is embedded deeply in our most traditional faiths and our most patriotic stories.
But as the voice of the ancient saint reminded us, you have to beware of the desire for power. Whether it’s the power of being aligned with the president’s party or the power of a nation whose economic and military power bestride the globe, progressive Christians don’t have any immunity to its lure. The willingness to defend the indefensible does not belong to one side alone. We are as liable as anyone else to having our emotions stoked at the expense of our better judgment, and to allow our most sacred values to be used as window dressing for a very different agenda. The nation is not the church, however much religious significance we may find in our history.
But for a day, at least, we saw a portrait of a generous and unheralded version of our religion. It was altogether fitting that Garth Brooks should bring the whole thing home with the day’s second striking moment, an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace.” This song, both familiar and profound, expresses something very different than the rehearsal of American greatness and the celebration of individual accomplishments that is at the heart of every presidential inauguration. Grace, after all, is a pure gift that no one can earn. Brooks asked the people on the Mall and at home to sing along. (I did.)
Brooks greeted the new president, the outgoing vice president, and the other former presidents on stage. More impressive yet, he actually got them to sing those words. America’s founders may have been inspired by their Christian values, but America has never been a nation only for Christians. We have the freedom and responsibility to respect and draw upon the gifts of all our fellow citizens, whatever their religion.
So it wasn’t church. But if it were, I’d have been bound to point out that whatever we love and whatever we accomplish, we all need grace.
Benjamin J. Dueholm is pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in University Park. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News.
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