When President Barack Obama took his second oath of office, he put his hand on not just one but two Bibles and concluded his affirmation with “so help me God.” The president doesn’t just show up for work at the appointed time after stopping by the payroll office to fill out the appropriate paperwork. We expect him to swear a solemn oath. It’s a religious act that resolves, in the full awareness of God’s presence, faithfulness to a duty and one’s reliance upon Him for the ability to fulfill it. A bare affirmation would fall far short of this in moral power for the leader and in comfort to those he leads.
(Franklin Pierce is the only president to have affirmed instead of swearing an oath, as the Constitution allows, placing his hand on a law book instead of a Bible. That was 160 years ago. It didn’t catch on.)
And we go beyond even that when we launch a president into his four years of public service. We have others praying on either side of him. One offers an invocation of God’s blessings and the other a benediction, both of them praying for the man and the nation. Especially in this great country—great not only in its power, but also in its privileges and moral goals—we sense keenly the inadequacy of everyone who ascends to the presidency, the asymmetrical relationship between the task and the man. He will face the constant swirl of political intrigue on Capitol Hill as well as the ongoing insanity of international “politics” and the threats it brings even to our shores.
We uphold him in official prayer also because of the even greater disproportion between the temptations of the office and the moral strength of the officeholder, no matter who he happens to be. With so much power at his disposal and so many seeking his favor, it is easy for him to think more of himself than he ought, that he is better than others, and so that others should serve him instead of the reverse. The intoxicating atmosphere in Washington changes otherwise good people so that they soon start preferring party advantage and personal gain over public service.
God establishes government for our good (Romans 13:1-10). We sense there is something greater than human involved in government, or there ought to be. And so unlike the way we view the clerk at the DMV, we invest people in these high positions with majesty, or perhaps recognize an inherent majesty. Like God, they have the awesome power of life and death. And like Solomon, they have every reason to cry out to God for the elusive wisdom that even the greatest of them needs for governing a multitude of willful souls.
We have a separation of church and state in this country. Our Founders wanted neither a church-dominated state nor state-dominated churches. Both make for bad politics and bad religion. But that does not forbid the fear of God restraining and guiding the president’s heart, as apparently we think it should.