Keeping the faith: an American story

Joe Biden being sworn in, his wife Jill at his side.
Joe Biden being sworn in. Photo credit: Screenshot from BBC News at Ten

President Elect Biden waited with respect for Trump’s plane to set off for Florida before leaving the house to attend mass ahead of his historic inauguration. Following the traumatic events of the Capitol Hill riots, fences with razor wires had been erected for fear of disruption at the inauguration, and thousands of flags had been placed where crowds of people would usually greet the incoming president. Rather than graciously handing over the reins to his successor, Trump ominously announced to his supporters “We love you, we will be back in some form.”

Unlike Trump, the vast majority of previous presidents have honoured the democratic ritual of the next incoming president. After the divisive and disputed election of 1800, Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and John Adams came together in a spirit of “forgiveness and unity”. Lincoln in his inaugural 1861 speech invoked the politicians’ “better angels”. That religion continues to permeate American society and politics marks it in contrast to Western Europe.

Trump’s cynical use of Christianity to court the right-wing evangelical base was unedifying to observe. In June last year, during the Black Live Matter protests following the violent killing of George Floyd, Trump stood outside St John’s Church (known as ‘the church of presidents’) posing for a photo op with his bible held the wrong way up, after ordering peaceful protesters to be cleared with teargas from the streets of Washington. He was widely criticised by church leaders for doing so.

By contrast, for many presidents past, faith was not an enabler for electoral success, but a guide for their politics and conscience. Thomas Jefferson was deeply influenced by his Unitarian roots. Despite opposition from the established Anglican church in 1776, he drafted reforms resulting in the separation of church and state. This was passed into law 10 years later along with the Declaration of Independence.

Yet the ‘American dream’ holds a paradox. Many early settlers had left their homeland to flee persecution: dissident Christians; Unitarians during the wars of religion in Europe; the pogroms of Eastern Europe; and the holocaust that resulted in the exodus of Jews. But while some of these settlers, such as Penn’s Quakers, tried to work peacefully with the native Americans, others failed to respect the homeland of the indigenous peoples. And the pernicious slave trade left a stain on the country, which it is yet to heal from.

This paradox is still being played out in the recent uprising on Capitol Hill. Who could fail to notice the Confederate flag? CNN were reporting that the intruders were heard praying once they reached the chamber. Praying for the police, apparently.

The US is considerably more religious than other wealthy countries, but its believers are politically very divided. According to data from the Pew Research Center in the run-up to the November 2020 election, 78% of white evangelical Christians backed Trump; 90% of black protestants, 70% of Jews and 67% Hispanic Catholics supported Biden. In the fiercely contested state of Georgia the immigrant population had increased by 28% in the last 20 years. This shift, together with an intensification of grassroots efforts to mobilise black voters in churches and communities, swung the state to the Democrats.

The US also has a long history of spirituality, from the metaphysical movements that emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries to the infusion of Eastern and Jewish mysticism, yoga practice, Buddhist meditation and Sufi wisdom in the 1960s. The number of Americans describing themselves as spiritual but not religious has been increasing across population groups.

Kamala Harris being sworn in.
Kamala Harris being sworn in. Photo credit: Screenshot from BBC News at Ten

Kamala Harris remembers attending the largely peaceful civil rights marches of the 1960s with her mother, Shyamala Gopalan, who taught Harris about her faith, but also brought her up to worship in a Christian Baptist Church, so that she would get a sense of the inclusivity of God.

President Biden always said if he hadn’t gone into politics, he would have been a priest. The words and images at this inauguration were powerful. Biden was sworn in with his family’s 127-year-old bible. The first African American and South Asian woman to be vice president took her oath beside him.

We were gifted a truly unifying speech, imbued with heart and soul, and love cloaked in patriotism. Biden urged people to lead “not by the example of our power, but by the power of our example”. He pledged to restore the soul of America, and he led a powerful moment of silent prayer for all those who had died during the past year of Covid-19. 

As this solemn day ended, there is no doubt – for those who have a faith or those who have not – that this president will do his utmost to end the “uncivil war” that has so divided the country, and to once again engage positively with the world. Maybe, just maybe, “making America great again” will take on a new meaning.

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