The inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States has given defenders of church-state separation hope. Biden is already at work getting rid of some of the dangerous policies promulgated by the Trump administration that conflated religion and government. We expect that to continue.
Having said that, there is one area where Biden might want to consider a modification of his approach: He could be more inclusive in his rhetoric when it comes to Americans’ faith – and lack thereof. Specifically, he should not assume that everyone has a faith. Data shows that nonreligious and unaffiliated Americans are growing in numbers.
Biden’s inauguration featured a lot of religious language, by some accounts more of it than any inaugural since President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s in 1953. Some of this is to be expected. Biden is an authentically religious man, and he wanted the event to reflect that. No one can fault Biden for attending private religious services as part of the inaugural or for taking the Oath of Office on a family Bible – even though the Constitution does not mandate that.
But the inauguration is also meant to include all of America, and Biden should remember that not every American is a person of faith. When he called for silent prayer, for example, it would have been nice to hear him add the words “or reflection” to the end. Near the conclusion of his speech, when Biden spoke about Americans being “sustained by faith,” it would have been better if he had noted that many Americans feel that way, not all, and that Americans find emotional sustenance in many things.
Biden could take a cue from his old boss, President Barack Obama, who often used more inclusive language and noted that nonbelievers are part of the American mosaic too and that they possess equal rights. Going forward, we would also like to see participants in public events, for invocations and the like, who represent the broad range of religious thought in America as well as those who represent many Americans with secular and/or humanist practices.
Sometimes that message is there. Biden’s executive order revoking the Muslim Ban, written before the Inauguration, contains this passage: “Nevertheless, the previous administration enacted a number of Executive Orders and Presidential Proclamations that prevented certain individuals from entering the United States – first from primarily Muslim countries, and later, from largely African countries. Those actions are a stain on our national conscience and are inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.” (Emphasis ours.)
That’s a rhetorical shift worth noting from the Trump administration, which never lost an opportunity to pander to a narrow slice of the American people. Let’s hope our new president keeps using a more inclusive tone. And let’s also remember that while language is important, actions, as the old adage goes, speak with even greater power. And so far, Biden is taking actions that are good for all Americans, believers and nonbelievers alike.
P.S. The Constitution says nothing about religious content during inaugural ceremonies. Whether to include it is up to the man or woman being sworn in. For more on this, see this great new video featuring Sarah Gillooly, AU’s vice president for state outreach and engagement.
Photo: The Bidens watch an interfaith religious service hosted by Washington National Cathedral