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Adrienne Roberts: In each other we trust

By Adrienne Roberts, Editorial Page Editor
Published January 21, 2013

WASHINGTON — As I stand among the crowds of people eagerly waiting to see President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, I’m thinking about God. It’s hard not to, even if I’m not sure if I necessarily believe in him. Religious references are everywhere, from the Washington Monument to the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. And in a sense, the inauguration ceremony is religious too — with the president uttering, “So help me God” as his hand is placed on the Bible.

This inauguration is significant for multiple reasons. It’s been 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation and 50 years since the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr. In his second inaugural address, former President Abraham Lincoln mentioned God 14 times and referenced the Bible four times in a mere 701-word speech. Lincoln’s speech is considered one of the best second-term inaugural speeches of all time.

King’s speech ended with the quote, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” On Monday, Obama took his oath with his hands on two Bibles: one owned by Lincoln and the other by King. Even the theme of this year’s inauguration was “Faith in America’s Future,” according to Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), the chairman of the Inauguration Committee. Faith in God, I’m assuming.

But what does God mean to the 20 percent of Americans that don’t believe in God? And what about people like me, one of many millennials who doubt the existence of God? The whole idea of God playing a role in politics makes me uncomfortable. I’ve grown up under the assumption that the church and state should be separate. America is a predominantly Christian nation, yes, but it just felt odd to be surrounded by a concept I can’t fully grasp in an intensely political setting. But in the United States, we place such a high value on morals, and that comes through in many social policies and expectations of politicians. And religion is intrinsically intertwined with morality. It seems unlikely that this will ever change.

For many people that braved the crowds Monday to stand within a long mile of the president, this so-called “faith” we’re supposed to have in America’s future not only comes from God, but also from the president. He’s our leader and the figurehead of our nation. He’s a political “God” in a sense. Obama has drawn huge crowds to his speeches since his debut on the political scene. Hell, they were even selling Obama condoms on the streets of D.C. He’s a star. And with that power comes a specific rhetoric: one filled with emotion and promises — promises of a better life for all Americans that his administration will make possible.

But Monday revealed a different sort of political rhetoric from Obama. He hardly used the word “I,” a word so many politicians use on a very frequent basis. He mentioned God, but it was only in passing, and the word didn’t have the same meaning as it did in Lincoln or King’s speeches.

Instead, the president’s inaugural speech focused on “We the People” and the still ambiguous concept of equality — equality for “our gay brothers and sisters,” equality for citizens forced to “wait for hours to exercise their right to vote” and immigrants who “still see America as a land of opportunity.”

That is, Obama said, “our generation’s task.”

Not his task, not the government’s responsibility, not God’s will. It’s completely up to us, as citizens, to have hope in each other. We must have faith in every citizen, from the people on Medicaid to the wealthy few.

It wasn’t just about Obama taking an oath to the country and God on Monday. Inaugural ceremonies are inherently religious, and this one certainly had the potential to take that a step further and draw on the prolific and often religious remarks of Lincoln and King.

In a nation filled with references to God, Obama wants us to take an oath to each other instead, an oath to make equality a reality for millions of Americans who are still not treated as equals as promised under the Constitution. It’s not about having faith in God or a certain higher power necessarily. It’s about having faith in the person standing next to you — your neighbor — but mostly it’s people you’ve never met and will never know. Because when you have faith that Americans all want the same thing, the same basic principles outlined in the Constitution, we can trust one another and treat each other as equals.

Regardless of whether you believe God gave us the rights and freedoms we have today, they must be “secured by his people here on Earth.” Obama is urging us, the American people, to work with him to make his goals a reality. Because the truth is, much of what happens in the next four years is in many ways out of his control. He knows this. And that truth might just be scarier and more intimidating than blindly placing your trust in something beyond yourself.

Adrienne Roberts can be reached at adrirobe@umich.edu.