Inaugural (Civil) Religion

Ashley Campbell

Almost a month ago, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. His inauguration was followed by women’s protests across the nation and the world. Subtly and not so subtly, religion played a part in each of these events – from the traditional inaugural prayers to religious groups marching in the protests.

In this audio entry for Third Spaces, I examine the religious language and rhetoric of civil religion expressed in the inaugural prayers and address. By civil religion, I am referring to the dynamic set of religiously-laden rhetoric and practices surrounding American beliefs, symbols, and rituals. This ideology often employs phrases, such as “city on a hill” or “god talk,” to further the idea that the United States is a chosen nation.

Donald Trump’s inauguration included a few firsts for religion, with 6 members of clergy offering prayers. That’s more than past inaugurations of recent history. This inauguration also included the first clergywoman, the first prosperity gospel preachers, and the first Latino evangelical Christian.

If you need a refresher, here’s a video of the Inauguration:

Trump’s speech may have been called his “most religious yet” by The Washington Post, but he also referenced the tradition of civil-religious rhetoric.

Civil religion was introduced into the 2017 Inauguration from the very beginning, but most explicitly during the invocations. From Rev. Rodriguez’s reading from the New Living Translation of Matthew Chapter 5 to Pastor Paula White’s saying,”we acknowledge that we are a blessed nation…and the United States of America is your gift,” the idea of the U.S. as a chosen nation reverberated throughout the inauguration. Trump echoed the civil-religious language of the invocations with messages of a “glorious destiny” and a “new millennium.”

Then, during the international Women’s March movement, religious groups turned out in support. Religion News Service highlights the presence of the “religious left” at the march, while The Atlantic and Christianity Today explore tensions over pro-lifer participation.

Religion at the Women’s March wasn’t limited to organizations and reproductive rights. Civil religion was also present, as marchers proclaimed their patriotism through protest and dissent. We’ve seen this patriotism in Kaepernick’s protest, in the anti-war movement of Vietnam, and in the civil rights movement. It’s a form of patriotism that challenges the understanding of patriotism of”total allegiance” and “loyalty to country” expressed in Trump’s inaugural address.

Below are some photos I took at the Denver Women’s March:

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