Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Pomp, pageantry and politics go into the mix of the inauguration of any new president of the United States. When Thomas Jefferson was sworn in as our third president, he walked to the Capitol for his swearing-in. He read his speech. Then, he went back to his boarding house. By such simplicity, he sent the message to the young nation that its president should not be seen as a monarch.
When James Madison, another Founding Father of our nation, often called the “Father of the Constitution,” took office, every item which he wore was made in the United States. He wanted to make a statement about our country’s independence. When Abraham Lincoln took office in 1865, he invited African Americans to march for the first time in the inaugural parade. When Barack Obama was sworn in as president, he invited an openly gay marching band to participate for the first time in the parade along with military and school bands.
The inaugural parade dates from the time of Jefferson. When he took office as president for the second time, Jefferson rode on horseback from the Capitol to the White House. Men from the Washington Navy Yard and musicians accompanied him along the way. This post-inaugural procession gave birth to the modern 1.5-mile inaugural parade that includes civilians and military personnel from the entire country. But, not all parades have been as simple as Jefferson’s.
Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural parade took place during the Cold War. It lasted 4 hours and 39 minutes. It was the longest of its kind in history. The parade made a statement about our military prowess. It showcased 22,000 service men and women and 5,000 civilians. There were tanks and artillery, 59 floats, 65 bands, 350 horses, three elephants and an Alaskan dog team.
All the ceremonies and celebrations surrounding a presidential inauguration highlight the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. The Founding Fathers established our republic in such a way that our federal government would transition without the spilling of blood in the streets. They wanted to insure continuity and change without revolution. But, they could not prevent protests. In a country that guarantees freedom of speech, it is inevitable that some individuals whose strong views differ from the new president do not remain silent.
Prior to the passing of the office of president from Lyndon B. Johnson to Richard Nixon, there were days of protests. On the very day of Nixon’s inauguration, flags were burned and police attacked. As Nixon drove in his motorcade, he was greeted with rocks and other objects. For President Trump’s inauguration, the National Park Service issued 22 permits for First Amendment events to take place over inauguration week. Protesters and supporters all attending the same passing on of power demonstrate, to some degree, the freedom that Americans enjoy.
At the center of all the cheers and jeers, the formal balls, the speeches and dinners stands the one and only requirement that the United States Constitution lays down for the inauguration: the taking of the oath of office. Before an individual begins to exercise the executive powers of president, that person must swear an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” For this oath, it is customary to use a bible, even though this is not specified by the Constitution. John F. Kennedy used a Catholic bible. Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Obama and Trump each took their oath of office, using two bibles.
However, not every president has taken the oath of office on a bible. John Quincy Adams deliberately did not use a bible. Wanting to show the distinction between church and state, he swore his oath on a book of laws. At his 1963 swearing-in aboard Air Force One, Lyndon B. Johnson placed his hand on a Catholic missal that belonged to his predecessor.
What is most important in every inauguration ceremony is the new president’s oath, his solemn promise to abide by the laws of the nation. The president is not the lawgiver. He is bound by the constitution. In fact, our constitution is the Founding Fathers’ practical application of the natural law to our nation’s governance.
Like Sophocles, Aristotle, Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas, our Founding Fathers accepted the fact that there is a God who created the universe. They accepted the fact that God implanted in man a law which all human beings can know by reason. This law precedes and is superior to all human laws. They acknowledged the reality that God is Supreme Judge of individuals and nations. (cf. Dr. Robert S. Barker, The Review of Metaphysics 66, September 2012)
Thus, amid all the loud accolades and strident protests surrounding the inauguration, we will best continue the great American traditions of freedom and liberty, of peace and opportunity for all by honoring the natural law. We need to once again as a nation listen more attentively to the law that God has implanted within each of us. When God is acknowledged as Creator and Supreme Judge, individuals will differ but will not divide their efforts from working toward the common good. They will respect every individual, born and unborn, as created with equal dignity. Putting aside the rhetoric of rancor, they will abide by the law of common civility so necessary for peace. In a word, the taking of the oath of office by our new president challenges, by its very nature, every American to return to the basics of God’s law, for his law is nothing other than his plan for our happiness.