Donald Trump’s inaugural one year ago anticipated his first year as president and explains his corrosive effects on the American tradition of civil religion.
Americans place our sacred trust in the principles, purposes, and aspirations of this civil religion. Unlike in previous inaugurals, though, Trump failed to affirm even basic commitments to freedom, democracy, and human dignity — ideals that many Americans hold as universal, self-evident, even God-given.
He deviated from past presidents of both parties (including Andrew Jackson and Richard Nixon) whose inaugurals established standards by which their administrations could be guided and judged. Dissolving the moral and religious principles that form the fabric of our national identity, this president has made it harder to place our trust in him or the actions he has taken.
What is American civil religion? It is the moral backbone of our body politic — a heritage of shared beliefs, stories, ideas, symbols, and events that explains the American experience of self-government with reference to a moral order that transcends it.
Its signposts are as ubiquitous as the coins in our pocket that read “In God We Trust”: from John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” sermon warning that “the eyes of all people are upon us”; to Benjamin Franklin’s Revolutionary War motto “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God”; to the Civil War, which Abraham Lincoln construed as divine punishment for the scourge of slavery; to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream” of human equality before God and his Winthropian insistence that “God somehow called America to do a special job for mankind and the world.”
Every president taps into this civil religion when taking the oath and delivering his inaugural — what sociologist Robert Bellah called the “religious legitimation of the highest political authority.” Civil religion calls Americans to place their trust in transcendent principles to which they and their leaders are bound.
Appeals to “freedom” or “liberty” appear 21 times in Barack Obama’s inaugurals, 32 times in Reagan’s and 57 times in George W. Bush’s. Obama invoked “dignity” three times in his inaugurals, George W. Bush five times, and Reagan seven times. Jimmy Carter thrice extolled “human rights,” and every president since him has extolled “democracy.” These ideals presuppose that the people can be wrong. For there is a “higher criterion” by which citizens and presidents shall be evaluated, judged, and held to account.
Trump’s inaugural address took aim at this shared civic faith by ignoring the bedrock principles that ground the nation. He made but one meager mention of “freedom” for Americans (but for no one else).
His premise is that the people, having elected him, must be right. There is no higher appeal. In pledging “to make America great again,” Trump still has not argued what makes America exceptional or worthy of greatness. His inaugural demanded “total allegiance” to the nation rather than inspiring Americans to love their country.
Past presidents proudly pointed to staunch protections of a free press and an independent judiciary (democratic institutions Trump has denigrated) or to commitments to dignity and equality for racial, religious, and ethnic minorities (groups Trump has maligned). Trump’s demand for “total allegiance” would become a prelude to other demands: that athletes stand for the national anthem or that justice officials confer him their personal loyalty.
Many presidents use inaugurals to channel humility or contemplate their weighty duties. Renouncing boastfulness, Theodore Roosevelt acknowledged the special responsibility that befalls the country: “If we fail, the cause of free self-government throughout the world will rock to its foundations, and therefore our responsibility is heavy to ourselves, the world … and to our children and our children’s children.”
Andrew Jackson meditated at length on the duties and limits of his office as specified in the Constitution. Adopting a “spirit of equity, caution and compromise,” he acknowledged the duty to “exhibit the forbearance becoming a powerful nation rather than the sensibility belonging to a gallant people.”
Where Trump overconfidently assured Americans “we will be protected by God,” Jackson (like other presidents) offered up “ardent supplications that He will continue to make our beloved country the object of His divine care and gracious benediction.” Jackson shows us how a populist president can reinforce America’s civil religion.
Civil religion helps narrate a story of the nation, even when citizens and their leaders violate its ideals. Inaugurals set ethical benchmarks appropriate to the times by which a president’s policies may be assessed. Jackson’s forced removal of Native Americans on the “Trail of Tears” contravened not only the Supreme Court ruling in favor of different tribes, but Jackson’s own inaugural pledge to establish a “just and liberal policy” that gives American Indians “human and considerate attention to their rights and their wants.”
But Trump’s failure to articulate higher principles to guide his administration erodes civic trust even in seemingly noble efforts. When Trump designated January “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month” — the same month he rescinded protected status for Haitians and Salvadorans fleeing dire conditions and sought to limit immigration from other countries — he blurred the otherwise principled attempt to stem human smuggling with his dubious efforts to limit and deport undesirable people.
As well, how can we know the real motives behind Trump’s decision to strike Syria following Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons attack? Was Trump protecting a “vital national security interest” or retaliating because “beautiful babies were cruelly murdered”? Trump never expressed any outrage for the thousands, including children, killed in hospitals and bread lines by Assad’s barrel bombs and Russian warplanes.
Pity is too selective and too easily co-opted to govern politics. That is why Woodrow Wilson established a different moral benchmark in his first inaugural: “The firm basis of government is justice, not pity. … Justice, and only justice, shall always be our motto.”
Since his inaugural, Trump’s presidency has exacerbated deep fissures about who we are as a country and what it means to be American.
Are we a nation of immigrants or of ethno-nationalists? Do we believe in “American Exceptionalism” or “America First”? Do we prioritize narrowly conceived national interests over enduring American values? Should we lead and preserve the international order, or simply compete with craven superpowers like China and Russia? Will we compassionately open our doors to the world’s “tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to be free,” or will we tell them to go back to the “s***hole countries” they come from? Put starkly, are we a nation “under God” or under Trump? We must choose.
A nation whose citizens embrace a moral reality beyond politics — one ordered by “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God” — possesses the strength to resist a noxious cult of personality that feeds the dark angels of our natures. Presidents, sometimes called the high priests of civil religion, usually lead us in this cause. They use the authority of their office and bully pulpit to summon the nation to noble purposes. But without the sermon, a president no longer really commands a pulpit. And we’re just left with the bully.
We now must look to other leaders and citizens to restore the civil religion that Trump has renounced and to heal the divisions he has sown over what it means to be, as our national motto affirms, one nation made up of many diverse peoples.