Obama and Lincoln’s Bible

Although every presidential inauguration is historically significant, some are more so than others. (Think about Coolidge’s 1925 inaugural — if you can.) President-elect Barack Obama’s upcoming inauguration is important for all the obvious reasons, yet it is intriguing to watch how skillfully he is using history to further underscore its significance while building legitimacy. Putting aside all the tripe about his “team of rivals,” Obama’s announced intent to use Lincoln’s Bible for the oath of office bespeaks how attuned he is to the use of symbols in our political (and legal) culture, particularly Lincoln’s legacy. Lincoln, too, skillfully used American history and religion to explain and to justify his actions.

Lincoln’s Bible resonates at different levels. First, it is deliciously ironic that a Democrat will make the first use of the first Republican president’s Bible since Lincoln himself in 1861. Second, the decision generated considerable press, which in turn subtly emphasizes Obama’s willingness to publicly embrace religion as part of our political discourse. Third, it poignantly ties Obama’s inauguration to the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves, the country’s continuing struggles over race, and, of course, Lincoln himself. By using Lincoln’s Bible, Obama portrays himself as Lincoln’s heir. Lincoln’s Bible will become Obama’s Bible as well.

As an historian, I applaud Obama’s willingness to consciously craft historical memory and, most of all, his rich appreciation for symbols in American politics.

Obama also understands the resonance of words in our political culture. His best speeches are carefully worded and eloquently delivered. His use of Lincoln’s Bible undoubtedly challenges him to reach Lincoln’s threshold as a speaker and writer. The pressure will be enormous: If you’re using Lincoln’s Bible, you had better be up to the task. And this will be difficult. Lincoln’s plaintive plea for national unity — those “mystic chords of memory” — in the first inaugural drew upon the memory of the American Revolution, and his powerful justification for waging the bloodiest of American wars — “With malice toward none, with charity for all” — in the second inaugural explicitly invoked Biblical authority. Both rank among the greatest addresses in American history.

What distinguishes Obama and Lincoln though is not eloquence or talent, but events. Today we face economic and financial distress, the threat of world-wide terror strikes, and difficult social problems, yet thankfully these pale when compared to civil war and slavery. One suspects that Obama’s message will be one of optimism and hope that draws upon the lessons of history, particularly Lincoln’s confidence and trust in the American people, their democratic government, and their diverse faiths. There is no need to exaggerate the current financial “crises”; the nation has endured far worse. Obama’s challenge will be to place his election and current events in proper context. The clarion call for “change” will likely hark back to fundamental principles and values found in American history and religion. In the years ahead, it will be interesting to observe how the Obama administration uses and shapes the strength of America’s collective memories in implementing its policies. After all, it is these “mystic chords of memory” that define our nationhood. Finally, Obama’s inauguration will make a singularly telling point that must not be overlooked: Lincoln’s oath was administered by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the lead opinion in Dred Scott. This fact may best explain Obama’s use of Lincoln’s Bible and its symbolic power.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Daniel Suhr

    Professor Blinka! The 1925 inaugural address by President Coolidge is a classic. Check out these closing lines:

    America seeks no earthly empire built on blood and force. No ambition, no temptation, lures her to thought of foreign dominions. The legions which she sends forth are armed, not with the sword, but with the cross. The higher state to which she seeks the allegiance of all mankind is not of human, but of divine origin. She cherishes no purpose save to merit the favor of Almighty God.


  2. Daniel D. Blinka

    Daniel: while the passage you quote is indeed rich, perhaps the next set of posts should address our respective definitions of a “classic.” I best remember Coolidge as the first president to speak on the radio. While on a visit to California, Coolidge was approached on a railroad platform by a reporter with a live microphone who, according to the story, introduced Coolidge with much fanfare and noted that the President’s “broadcast” would mark a historic occasion. And it did. The excited announcer held the microphone close to Silent Cal, who said, “Goodbye” and climbed onto the train. Now that’s classic Coolidge.

  3. Chuck Clausen

    What a lovely, learned, and timely essay, worthy of its distinguished author. Yesterday I received an embossed invitation to the Inaugural from the Inaugural Committee, the same invitation that was sent, I’m sure, to all in the constellation of contributors to Sen. Obama’s campaign. It lies on my desk as I consider whether to have it framed, not because it signifies anything significant about me, but because it signifies so much for our nation, for us as a people.

    I grew up on the south side of Chicago, a few miles southwest of Obama’s Hyde Park neighborhood. In my senior year at Leo High School, my English teacher, Brother Coogan, dispatched us college bound students to the libraries at the University of Chicago on research assignments. To get there, I took an “L” and a bus through segregated neighborhoods populated by African-Americans consigned to public housing, grotesque slab buildings worthy of the Soviet Union, gulag/ghettos like the infamous Robert Taylor “homes” and Cabrini Green. Other assignments took us to the Newberry Library near downtown Chicago. To get there, I would take the Englewood “L” through other segregated south side neighborhoods newly and densely populated by African-Americans, most of them having migrated from southern states, many from rural areas. There was much poverty to be seen through the windows of the “L” and much suffering within those overcrowded flats and apartments. The poverty and suffering was still in those neighborhoods when young Obama came to Chicago years later, hoping to do something about it, to make life better for afflicted residents.

    Racism was all around us and, although things are clearly much better now, racism (and many other pernicious “isms”) still keep us individually and as a people from realizing all the good that life can provide. So for this old coot from the south side of Chicago, to see Americans of all colors, ethnicities, ages and creeds, travel by the tens of thousands to listen to and cheer this young, eloquent, strong leader, another South Sider and an African American, is more thrilling and inspiring than I can express. I was thunder-struck and came close to tearing up as I watched the multitudes gathering in Grant Park on election night. That is why receiving the invitation to this particular Inaugural is so meaningful to me, and of course to many others, and why I will probably hang it on my office wall. After the election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency, many Catholics, especially Irish Catholics, hung photos of JFK on their walls because his election represented a broad acceptance of Catholics as “real” Americans. The election of Obama represents not simply a broader acceptance of African Americans as worthy of leadership in our society, but also a giant step toward liberation of us non-African Americans from the shackles of racism. Glory be!

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