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One nation under God

IN THE LIFE of America, few speeches are more seminal than a president's inaugural address. They define our times, lay out the visions of our leaders, and try to unify the country after the partisan divides of national elections.

In a rather profound way, presidents make their mark during these historic moments. George Washington set a critical tone in forging the new republic; Abraham Lincoln openly pondered the state of the nation torn apart by slavery and war; and John Kennedy lifted the sights of his countrymen by exhorting them to take greater responsibility both personally and collectively.

On Thursday after taking the oath of office, President Bush will briefly lay out the daunting challenges of a country at war, the need to tackle a series of major domestic reforms, and the moral charge facing the United States to help ease the overwhelming plight of untold victims half a world away. As he shapes and solidifies his legacy at the outset of a second term, pundits will dissect his every word while future historians will point to the address as a critical juncture in assessing both the man and the president.

Like every one of his predecessors, Bush undoubtedly will invoke the name of God, the "Giver of Good" as Theodore Roosevelt called the Almighty, and more than likely will ask for Divine Providence. While it may be irresistible to assume that any mention of God reflects the heightened sense of morals and values so prevalent during the campaign or mirrors the president's own religious faith, it will be far more than that. In emphasizing the notion of "one nation under God," he will be reinforcing a civic tenet that has been embedded in the country's persona since the beginning of the republic itself.

Like most presidents since Washington, Bush will attend a prayer service with his family, friends, and members of his Cabinet and will invite prominent clergy to participate in the day's official ceremonies. In calling upon God during his inaugural address, Bush will be following more than simple convention. He will be reflecting the nation's spiritual inheritance, not to mention the realities of assuming the ominous responsibilities conferred on any newly elected or reelected president. Not to be overlooked, he also will be reinforcing to the American people that their commander in chief holds himself accountable not only to them but to a higher power as well.

In the last half century, when the United States has taken on a far more complicated and daunting role at home and abroad, there has been a growing crescendo in inaugural addresses to ask God "to strengthen our hands for the good work ahead," as President Bill Clinton put it. Presidents and their speechwriters have continued to wrestle with how best to convey the message.

Although he never publicly showed his spiritual side during World War II, Dwight Eisenhower was urged by the Rev. Billy Graham as well as playwright and future ambassador Clare Booth Luce to be a role model to the nation and visibly show his belief in God. In the days leading up to his swearing-in, Eisenhower became far more reflective about the task before him and wanted to find a way to show his faith in "the presence of God."

By the morning of his inauguration he had decided to begin his address to the nation with "a little private prayer of my own." Buoyed by the service he just had attended at the National Presbyterian Church, he returned to the Statler Hilton ready for the task. He gathered his thoughts and wrote on a yellow pad the first prayer composed and delivered by a president at his swearing-in ceremony.

"Give us, we pray, the power to discern clearly right from wrong, and allow all our words and actions to be governed thereby, and by the laws of this land. Especially we pray that our concern shall be for all the people regardless of station, race, or calling.

"May cooperation be permitted and be the mutual aim of those who, under the concepts of the Constitution, hold to differing political faiths; so that all may work for the good of our beloved country and Thy glory. Amen."

Confronting the growing threats of the Cold War, rising casualties in Korea, and a fractious Congress, it was a heartfelt entreaty on a cloudy winter day in 1953.

Like Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush wrote his own entreaty for his 1989 inauguration, saying, "My first act as president is a prayer."

"Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank You for Your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on out hearts these words: `Use power to help people.' For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, not to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us to remember it, Lord. Amen."

For two men so naturally reticent about engaging in such personal displays of introspection, the enormity of the office and the need to bring the country together at the outset of their presidencies were too compelling for them not to show their personal faith in a greater power. While inaugural addresses always have provided snapshots of our leaders and the aspirations of our people, they also have been interlaced with sermon-like prose and entreaties to "that Being who is supreme over all, Patron of Order, Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of virtuous liberty," in the rich language of John Adams.

While today we may wrangle in the courts over religious correctness or the appropriate use of prayer in our civic life, make no mistake: America continues to be a country steeped in its own unique, discernible spirituality, a phenomenon that has followed us since the days of our earliest explorers and settlers. Our country's leaders merely validate that fact every four years, almost like a rite of presidential passage, when they deliver their national sermons. In turning to God, they prod us, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, to raise our sights to "the better angels of our nature." They remind us of our spiritual heritage and the blessings we have enjoyed. They challenge us as a people in the midst of our comfort as well as our distress to take personal responsibility and to seek the "Divine guidance" that Franklin Roosevelt asked for in 1933, "to give light to them that sit in darkness and to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Next week George W. Bush will add one more link to that historic chain of inaugural addresses, reinforcing the country's rich inheritance by asserting yet again that the United States believes in the precept of one nation under God.

James P. Moore Jr. is author of "One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America," which will be published later this year. 

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