Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Obama inauguration

Last night I sat through the Obama inauguration on CNN (which also meant sitting through the interminably long sections before the actual event). His much awaited speech, on which we are told he had been working for two weeks pressed all the right buttons. It mentioned Jews and Hindus, Muslims and Christians, and, I think for the first time, non-believers! It spoke actually of restoring science to its rightful place (again I suspect a first for an inauguration), climate change, the economy, and what is reassuring, that better security needs cannot be an excuse for trampling on people's liberties, the two can exist together, -- something that †he Bush administration has specialised in subverting. (Probably a lesson here for Indian hawks who are forever clamouring to have tighter laws that give the go by to standard legal procedure and habeus corpus). His speech was short but forceful, though it was no Gettysburg nor, for that matter, a 'Tryst with Destiny'.

But this post is not about the speech, great though it might have been. Watching the inauguration, I couldn't help wondering how Christian theology suffuses the whole ceremony. Despite all the talk of America being the land of all religions which Obama was at pains to point out, the invocation at the beginning was by the Rev. Rick Warren and the benediction at the end by Rev. Joseph Lowery, both ministers of the faith and both of whom called upon 'our Lord Jesus Christ', the former ending with the full Pater Nostra; the oath of office is taken on the Bible and all oaths end with 'so help me God'. And I got to wondering what would happen if a Jew or a non believer were to get to that position. I suppose a Jew could still take the oath on the old testament though I am not sure what a non believer would do (having a Muslim there or, for that matter, a Hindu, is for the moment such a preposterous idea that it doesn't call for comment at present). And I think the answer is that such a person would not reach that position in the first place. Large numbers of Americans we are told are non practitioners but I believe they would have great trouble voting for a God-less candidate (let alone a Muslim one). Thus, even though there is indeed separation of church and state (despite God occasionally talking to Presidents like George W Bush), the Christian motif runs deep within the psyche of the country.

Comparing with India is instructive. Here the administering of the oath is a strictly secular affair. It is taken by members of Parliament including the Prime Minister either 'in the name of God' or 'solemnly affirm'ed, the latter being the preferred mode of all left parties. I believe this is a legacy of Nehru and Ambedkar, both of whom were deeply suspicious of religion insidiously creeping into legislative matters. An equivalent of the Christian ceremony above would be like having a bunch of priests chanting Vedic mantras, and the Homam the sacred fire, presiding over the inauguration of a new Government, and with members taking oath on the Bhagavad Gita. Even the BJP in its worst avatar would balk, I believe, at this perversion of a purely legislative practice. As a younger democracy, I believe our secular ideals are stronger in intent, than that of the much older one, though we fare more and more poorly in practice with every passing year.

Tailpiece: Science has indeed appeared earlier in 22 Presidential inaugural addresses -- see here. (via Doug Natelson through G. I. Menon).


Anant said...

Well said, my friend!

Rahul Basu said...

Alas, I have been demoted from 'Learned Mastah' to mere 'friend'.

Anant said...

That was in deference to the wishes of your numerous readers who found that offensive!

sfauthor said...

Nice posting. Do you know about this edition of the Gita?

AMOK said...

"It is uncertain how many Presidents used a Bible or added the words "So help me God" at the end of the oath, as neither is required by law" from your favorite Wiki-source. Thanks for the post -- O Learned ... One.

Speaking of wonders. I saw a NYTimes piece by Col. Gaddafi! Evil is precessing on its axis.