Obama's Inauguration: A Progressive Approach to Religion in the Public Sphere?

Printer-friendly version
Valarie Kaur


"We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers."
 – Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, January 2009

Since George Washington invoked “the Almighty Being” in his first inaugural address, prayer has opened America's Presidential inaugural ceremonies.  Recent Presidents -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- have chosen religious figures who have offered broad ecumenical prayers to appeal to the widest range of people.

But, in a departure from the norm, Barack Obama chose voices from extreme ends of the political spectrum and wove them together into a pluralistic patchwork of public religious expression: the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop commenced the festivities, an evangelical preacher known for his opposition to gay marriage offered the invocation, and a veteran civil rights leader delivered the benediction.  At the National Prayer Service the next day, the first female president of the Disciples of Christ gave the sermon, and Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic leaders offered prayers from their faith traditions. (To see video coverage of the festitivites, click here.)

Never before had an inaugural ceremony embraced such radically inclusive religious representation.  Obama was the first to give a prominent place to Muslims and Hindus, both in the ceremony and his inauguration speech.  (The Bush and Clinton inaugurations were racially diverse but remained almost exclusively Judeo-Christian, prominently featuring Billy Graham.)  Can Obama’s inauguration hold up a picture of a new progressive approach to religion in the public sphere? 

In "Progressives, the Religion Clauses, and the Limits of Secularism" (Chapter 21 in The Constitution in 2020), William Marshall explains that a progressive approach to religion must recognize the limits and values of secularism, the position that government must not use its power to promote or endorse religion.  Marshall argues that secularism has instrumental values: government support of religion demeans the integrity of that religion, harms and alienates other religions, and misuses government resources. 

However, secularism has its limits too, Marshall argues: the secular position that morality can be derived from nonreligious sources is itself a theological proposition that creates its own establishment.  When secularism privileges nonreligious over religious entities, it discriminates against religion and violates equality.  Moreover, secularism runs up against a public culture already replete with religious symbols, names, and references.  It is not only impossible but also hostile and divisive to attempt to strip all religion from the public sphere.  Marshall concludes that both extremes of pro-religion conservatism and anti-religion secularism are harmful.

In his inauguration, Obama appeared to steer between the extremes Marshall sketches out: he heeded the values of secularism and avoided his predecessor’s overreliance on a single brand of conservative Christianity, but he also recognized the limits of secularism and did not restrict or water down religion in his inauguration.  Rather, Obama populated the festivities with multiple religious voices that reflected the nation’s rising religious diversity.  I believe that the use of religion in Obama’s inauguration went beyond merely confirming the importance of the historical role of religion in American history: it played an active role in the evolution of public religious displays from general and minimalist to plural and particular. 

Marshall warns against such an active engagement with religion.  Marshall wants progressives to permit religious vestiges in culture but prohibit the government from new forms of religious reference or displays.  When the government participates in the production of public religious culture, Marshall argues, sectarian interests can capture the state, religious groups will want to seek additional government favor, and the government can become entangled in battles over religious symbols, raising antiestablishment concerns. 

Obama risked all of these dangers in his inauguration – and for the most part avoided them.  Can he continue to engage religion successfully as President – not just in speech but in action too?

Obama’s recent speech addressing embattled religious communities in the Middle East suggests he can. There, Obama recognized both sides as victims and oppressors, and appealed to both sides’ religious commitments in calling them to break cycles of violence. 


His speech has been criticized as just that – speech. And yet speech is a necessary first step toward any action.  That first step is always critical and often under-valued: it is the space of the imagination where values are nurtured, horizons are drawn, and capabilities are determined.  Obama works this space well.  His speeches throughout the campaign and in the inauguration reclaimed a national narrative of hope and possibility; now his speech aims to redeem ancient religious narratives soaked in blood.  Radically inclusive speech has the power to bring people to the table and to shape their sense of possibility upon arriving there (journalists have already begun to suggest that there’s an “Obama effect” rippling throughout other parts of the globe). Once at the table, the real work begins – negotiating concrete differences, pounding out policy proposals, and taking action that causes real change.

Can Obama bring enough people to the table to deliver results?  Can he engage religion and avoid the danger Marshall outlines -- government entanglement with religion at home and abroad?  The jury is still out, but the signs are promising.