According to sociologist Robert Bellah, the presidential inauguration is not an empty ritual, but an important ceremony of “civil religion” that reaffirms the sacred and solemn legitimacy of the highest position of political authority. The concept of civil religion Bellah referred to was initially coined by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; it is the culmination of all beliefs, symbols and rites that provide meaning and purpose to the existence of the United States as a political entity. To reiterate, although Bellah’s take on civil religion has been misunderstood before as nationalistic self-worship, the civil religion he describes is not an American society where the ideals of freedom, equality, democracy, justice and human dignity are realized, but rather the ethical principles and ideals that give meaning and purpose to its existence.
As in any other religion, the principles and ideals of American civil religion are recorded as “scripture” in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and have been continuously reinterpreted and rewritten by the many prophets and priests who approached it throughout America’s long history. They have also been imprinted on the daily lives of Americans in the form of holidays such as Independence Day and Memorial Day, as well as rites such as the aforementioned inauguration ceremony. George Washington’s farewell speech, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial are additional examples of politicians and civil society leaders reaffirming and reinterpreting these ideals and beliefs.
The past four years of hate and division that Donald Trump caused with his vulgar language on Twitter and the masses of racist nationalists who have united in their anger and violence as a result of those words have shaken the very foundation of America’s civil religion, and violated and desecrated the Capitol. But now, having reached the end of Trump’s reign, Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony brings Americans back to the core of their identity. The sacred ritual of civil religion is precisely what Americans needed to take the first step in overcoming the crisis they are currently facing.
The person who breathed life back into the ideals and principles of civil religion and emerged as a prophet to guide America out of their difficult times was surprisingly not Biden. Rather, it was Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old Black poet who, in her poem “The Hill We Climb,” proclaimed that the ideals of American democracy lie not in the past, waiting to be restored, but in the future within a society of “diverse and beautiful” people — people of “all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.” She then added that these ideals do not “lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.” This young poet, who still overflows with the spirit and vitality of youth, has cleansed an America of division and a democracy corrupted by violence with her beautiful poetry and presented to Americans the bold hope and vision of a society as a just multiracial democracy. In President John F. Kennedy’s words, “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.”
Some may look at this and think of it as no more than empty thoughts and words. However, the history of America is also the history of its language. In 2004, Barack Obama delivered a speech on a new vision he had for America based on his own interpretation of American ideals and ideologies. At the time, he was a nobody: a 43-year-old newcomer who was just then arriving on the political scene. But after that speech, his words changed history as Obama became the next Democratic presidential candidate and then the first African American president of the United States in 2008. From the point of view of a sociologist, the crisis America faces is dark and deep-rooted. Nonetheless, I watch this video of a young sociology major reciting her poem time and time again in the hope that the America she sings of with a clear voice and draws with graceful fingers will someday come true.