With Malice Toward Many: Washington, Lincoln, and God

Most Americans in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries believed in the public expression of religious sentiments as surely as they believed in publicly proclaiming their patriotism.  Such expression was not merely their right; it was their duty.  Indeed, religious faith was part of the “given” of any political debate, the common ground upon which all candidates stood when they rose to disagree with one another.  Even in the late 19th century—when great oratory had given way to high-blown platitudes—politicians could still, in all sincerity, invoke the Almighty at the slightest provocation.

Among the most common acknowledgments of religious faith were those delivered at ceremonial occasions where there were no votes on the table, no veterans or preachers to enlist, no pragmatic reason to haul out the colors of rhetoric.  One such occasion was the inauguration of a president.  At that moment, with the election over, the nation’s new chief executive and head of state speaks to the people for the first time.  It was probably a much more significant occasion in earlier times than it is today, after so many televised debates, so many interviews, so many 60-second spots.  But even in the 21st century, the significance of the moment remains.

George Washington set the precedent in his First Inaugural by expressing his own submission to God and then the submission...

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