Americans have a taste for drama. With every change of political party the Manichean struggle between the forces of light and those of darkness appears ready for the final confrontation. And yet it is a society in which the forces of light are also dark, and those of darkness shed light. The Manichean quality of American discourse is most sharply drawn at those moments of political transition from one aggregation of forces to the other. And yet, both oppositional forces--as much as they despise the other--tend to draw from the same well, and feed on the same founding vision--even if to opposite effect. And that well, that source--the Jewish and Christian Bibles (I refrain from the more judgemental appellations Old and New Testaments)--remains very much source of guidance in times of trouble in the United States. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the inaugural speeches of Presidents, especially those who appear to incarnate a clear triumph of one vision (if only narrowly triumphant as is customary within the legal structures under which American politics is managed) over the other. (Ruminations 69/Democracy Part 38: "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!": On President Trump's Inaugural Speech)In this spirit, and with the intent of seeking the moral vision of the person assuming office I considered each incoming President's choice of guiding or emphasized biblical passage for clues about the person and the possible tone of that administration. What the inevitable choice of the key Biblical passage might reveal is something of the moral view of the person who would occupy the presidency. "President Lincoln had a preference for the Evangelists. President Obama chose Paul, that great Jewish architect of Christianity." (Democracy Part XIV: “For Now We See Through A Glass, Darkly).
This year that process of drawing at the Biblical well ("There cometh a woman of Samaria to draw water: Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink." John 4:7), of pointing us to the incarnation of the the values of the next four years ("whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life." John 4:14), started early. But then this was an unusual election cycle. (Discussed in Ruminations 97: "The LORD is my strength and my shield. . . and with my song will I praise him"; Joe Biden's Thanksgiving 2020 Address ). For his Thanksgiving address, "Mr. Biden chose Psalms 28. This is a plea, a supplication; it is the earnest surrender to a higher power from one seeking a return from exile, and fearful of straying, but one that centers communication, between the divine and the human whose existence manifests a spiritually correct course."
¡Oh noche, que guiaste! [Oh guiding night]
¡Oh noche amable más que la alborada! [Oh night lovelier than the dawn]
¡Oh noche que juntaste [Oh night that hasjoined]
amado con amada, [lover and beloved]
amada en el amado transformada! [lover into beloved transformed]
"My whole soul was in it today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation, and I ask every American to join me in this cause." (J. Biden, Inauguration Address, 1-2021). And, indeed, one sees woven into this inaugural address both the ululations of triumph after a dark night of trail, and the strains of the great tasks of union to which past trials point.
I note that this is not meant to be the sort of conventional analysis about the use of Biblical quotations of references in speeches, one that tends to be rather indifferent to the specific meanings, focusing instead on the history of the invocations or its relation to an assessment of the religious fervor of the nation of the speaker. That is not my intent here, rather the intent of what follows is an engagement with those references themselves. For those with more conventional tastes and a desire for instruction in the use of such references in speeches, see, e.g., Tevi Troy and Stuart Harpern, "God at the Inauguration," The Wall Street Journal (21 January 221).
The text of the inaugural address follows along with brief reflections. It stands in marked contrast to the farewell address of President Trump, distributed the day before (discussed at Mr. Trump's Farewell Address).
1. The full text of Psalm 30 is worth quoting (King James Version):
30 I will extol thee, O Lord; for thou hast lifted me up, and hast not made my foes to rejoice over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried unto thee, and thou hast healed me.
3 O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from the grave: thou hast kept me alive, that I should not go down to the pit.
4 Sing unto the Lord, O ye saints of his, and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness.
5 For his anger endureth but a moment; in his favour is life: weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
6 And in my prosperity I said, I shall never be moved.
7 Lord, by thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: thou didst hide thy face, and I was troubled.
8 I cried to thee, O Lord; and unto the Lord I made supplication.
9 What profit is there in my blood, when I go down to the pit? Shall the dust praise thee? shall it declare thy truth?
10 Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me: Lord, be thou my helper.
11 Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing: thou hast put off my sackcloth, and girded me with gladness;
12 To the end that my glory may sing praise to thee, and not be silent. O Lord my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever.
"So here's my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested, and we've come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's challenges. And we’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example." (Farewell Address).
"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes as my mom would say: ‘Just for a moment, stand in their shoes.’" (Inaugural Address).
This is indeed the essence of the lesson of the supplication of Psalm 28 and the relief and joy of Psalm 30. It is the impossible task of transforming the lover into the beloved. And it recognizes the testing inherent in the relationship between the divine and the human in Psalm 30. Mr. Biden offers us the hope that "America has been tested, and we've
come out stronger for it." He has suggested the means for preserving that very delicate triumph. That perhaps is the finest verse of his song of triumph and one that one ought to hope can be reserved. It is a supplication addressed not merely to the people but to their officials--elected or otherwise. One can only hope that they too are listening. But only time will tell. One is grateful, in any case, for a Presidency that now offers supplication rather than Jeremiads, that offers stability and steadying movement rather than transformational provocation.
Chief Justice Roberts, Vice President Harris, Speaker Pelosi, Leader Schumer, Leader McConnell, Vice President Pence, distinguished guests, and my fellow Americans. This is America's day. This is democracy’s day. A day of history and hope, of renewal and resolve. Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew and America has risen to the challenge.
Today, we celebrate the triumph, not of a candidate, but of a cause. The cause of democracy. The people, the will of the people has been heard, and the will of the people has been heeded. We've learned again that democracy is precious, democracy is fragile. At this hour my friends, democracy has prevailed.
So now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago, violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power, as we have for more than two centuries. As we look ahead in our uniquely American way: restless, bold, optimistic, and set our sights on the nation we know we can be and we must be.
I thank my predecessors of both parties for their presence here today. I thank them from the bottom of my heart and I know the resilience of our constitution and the strength, the strength of our nation, as does President Carter, who I spoke with last night, who cannot be with us today, but whom we salute for his lifetime of service.
I've just taken the sacred oath each of those patriots have taken, the oath first sworn by George Washington. But the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. On we the people who seek a more perfect union. This is a great nation. We are good people. And over the centuries through storm and strife, in peace and in war, we've come so far, but we still have far to go.
We'll press forward with speed and urgency for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities. Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.
Few people in our nation's history have been more challenged, or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we're in now. Once-in-a-century virus, it silently stalks the country. It has taken as many lives in one year as America lost in all of World War II. Millions of jobs have been lost. Hundreds of thousands of businesses closed. A cry for racial justice, some 400 years in the making, moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.
A cry for survival comes from the planet itself, a cry that can't be any more desperate, or any more clear. And now, a rise of political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat. To overcome these challenges to restore the soul and secure the future America requires so much more than words, it requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity, unity.
In another January, on New Year's Day in 1863 Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. When he put pen to paper, the president said, and I quote: “If my name ever goes down into history, it'll be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”
My whole soul was in it today. On this January day, my whole soul is in this, bringing America together, uniting our people, uniting our nation, and I ask every American to join me in this cause.
Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs, we can put people to work in good jobs, we can teach our children in safe schools, we can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward work, and rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice, and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.
I know speaking of unity, it can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real. But I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we're all are created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization, have long torn us apart.
The battle is perennial and victory is never assured. Through Civil War, the Great Depression, World Wars, 9-11. Through struggle, sacrifice, and setbacks our better angels have always prevailed. In each of these moments, enough of us, enough of us have come together to carry all of us forward. And we can do that now.
History, faith, and reason show the way, the way of unity. We can see each other not as adversaries, but as neighbours, we can treat each other with dignity and respect. We can join forces, stop the shouting and lower the temperature. For that without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. No progress, only exhausting outrage, no nation, only a state of chaos.
This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge and unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you we will not fail. We have never ever, ever, ever failed in America. We've acted together. And so today, at this time in this place, let's start afresh all of us. Let's begin to listen to one another again, hear one another, see one another, show respect to one another.
Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in his path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war, and we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated, and even manufactured.
My fellow Americans, we have to be different than this. America has to be better than this. And I believe America is so much better than this. Just look around, here we stand in the shadows of the Capitol dome. As was mentioned earlier, completed amid the Civil War, when the union itself was literally hanging in the balance. Yet, we endured. We prevail. Here we stand, looking out on the great mall, where Dr. King spoke of his dream. Here we stand where 108 years ago, at another inaugural thousands of protesters tried to block brave women marching for the right to vote.
And today, we marked the swearing in of the first woman in American history elected to national office, Vice President Kamala Harris. Don't tell me things can’t change. Here we stand, across the Potomac from the Arlington Cemetery, where heroes who gave the last full measure of devotion rest in eternal peace.
And here we stand, just days after a riotous mob thought they could use violence to silence the will of the people, to stop the work of our democracy, to drive us from this sacred ground. It did not happen. It will never happen. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever, not ever.
To all those who supported our campaign, I'm humbled by the faith you've placed in us. To all those who did not support us, let me say this: hear me out as we move forward. Take your measure me and my heart. If you still disagree, so be it. That's democracy. That's America.
The right to dissent peaceably within the guardrails of our Republic is perhaps this nation's greatest strength. You hear me clearly: disagreement must not lead to disunion. And I pledge this to you: I will be a president for all Americans, all Americans. And I promise you, I will fight as hard for those who did not support me, as for those who did.
Many centuries ago, St. Augustine, a saint in my church, wrote that the people was a multitude defined by the common objects of their love, defined by the common objects of their love. What are the common objects we as Americans love that define us as Americans? I think we know. Opportunity, security, liberty, dignity, respect, honour, and yes, the truth.
Recent weeks and months have taught us a painful lesson. There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power, and for profit. And each of us has a duty and a responsibility as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honour our constitution, to protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.
Look, I understand that many of my fellow Americans view the future with fear and trepidation. I understand they worry about their jobs. I understand, like my dad, they lay in bed staring at night, staring at the ceiling wondering: ‘Can I keep my health care? Can I pay my mortgage?’ Thinking about their families, about what comes next. I promise you I get it. But the answer is not to turn inward, to retreat into competing factions, distrusting those who don't look like you, or worship the way you do, or don't get their news from the same sources you do.
We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts, if we show a little tolerance and humility, and if we're willing to stand in the other person's shoes as my mom would say: ‘Just for a moment, stand in their shoes.’
Because here's the thing about life, there's no accounting for what fate will deal you. Some days, when you need a hand, there are other days when we're called to lend a hand, that's how it has to be, it is what we do for one another. And if we are this way, our country will be stronger, more prosperous, more ready for the future, and we can still disagree.
My fellow Americans, in the work ahead of us, we're going to need each other. We need all our strength to persevere through this dark winter. We're entering what may be the toughest and deadliest period of the virus. We must set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation, one nation. And I promise you this, as the Bible says, weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
We will get through this together, together. Look folks, all my colleagues I serve with in the House and the Senate up here, we all understand the world is watching, watching all of us today. So here's my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested, and we've come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's challenges. And we’ll lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.
We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress, and security. Look, you all know we've been through so much in this nation and my first act as President, I’d like to ask you to join me in a moment of silent prayer to remember all those who we lost this past year to the pandemic, those 400,000 fellow Americans, moms, dads, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, friends, neighbours and co-workers. We will honour them by becoming the people and the nation we know we can and should be. So I ask you, let's say a silent prayer for those who've lost their lives and those left behind and for our country.
Folks, this is time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and untruth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America's role in the world. Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways, but the fact is, we face them all at once presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we've had.
Now we're going to be tested, are we going to step up? All of us? It’s time for boldness for there’s so much to do, and this is certain, I promise you, we will be judged, you and I, by how we resolve these cascading crises of our era.
Will we rise to the occasion is the question? Will we master this rare and difficult hour? Will we meet our obligations and pass along a new and better world to our children? I believe we must. I'm sure you do as well, I believe we will, and when we do we'll write the next great chapter in the history of the United States of America, the American story, a story that might sound something like a song that means a lot to me.
It’s is called American Anthem. There's one verse that stands out, at least for me, and it goes like this: ‘The work and prayers of a century have brought us to this day, what shall be our legacy? What will our children say? Let me know in my heart when my days are through. America, America, I gave my best to you.’
Let's add, let’s us add our own work and prayers to the unfolding story of our great nation. If we do this, then when our days are through, our children, and our children's children will save us. They gave their best, they did their duty, they healed a broken land.
My fellow Americans, I close today where I began, with the sacred oath before God and all of you, I give you my word, I will always level with you. I will defend the constitution, I'll defend our democracy, I'll defend America. And we'll give it all… keep everything I do in your service, thinking not of power, but the possibilities, not of personal interest, but the public good and together, we shall write an American story of hope, not fear, of unity, not division, of light, not darkness.
A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness. May this be the story that guides us, the story that inspires us, and the story that tells ages yet to come that we answered the call of history, we met the moment.
Democracy and hope, truth and justice, did not die on our watch, but thrived. That America secured Liberty at home and stood once again as a beacon to the world. That is what we owe our forbearers, one another, and generations to follow.
So, with purpose and resolve, we turn to those tasks of our time, sustained by faith, driven by conviction and devoted to one another and the country we love with all our hearts. May God bless America, and may God protect our troops.
Thank you, America.”