Inauguration day in America has been described as the closest we have in this country to a civic religious holiday. It is filled with ritual, time honored traditions, and of course, prayer. Each ceremony is framed by religious leaders offering an invocation and benediction. Usually, the clergy chosen have some connection to the new president, either religiously or geographically.
This year was no exception as religious and biblical language suffused the events. The poet Amanda Gorman, whose performance was a highlight of the show, included the words “Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree”, which is reference to a number of Biblical citations: Micah 4:4, Zechariah 3:10 and 1 Kings 5:5. But the line has multiple allusions: not only to the Bible but also to an important letter from George Washington by way of the musical Hamilton.
In the play, Washington tells Alexander Hamilton that he will not run for president again, but instead retire to his home in Mount Vernon to “sit under my own vine and fig tree / A moment alone in the shade / At home in this nation we’ve made.” Hamilton is astonished that the president is willing to give up power, but Washington wants to show the country and the world how the peaceful transition of power in a democracy works.
Gorman’s use of the line is particularly apt as our country reels from the attack on the Capitol two weeks ago to prevent the transition of one administration to the next, but it also echoes another use of the verse. Washington wrote a letter to the Jewish community of Newport, RI, telling them:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
Washington wanted the Jews to understand that they were free in America to practice their religion in their own way, with complete freedom. It is a message that our community has cherished for centuries and was reaffirmed by Gorman in her inspiring words.
There were other uses of religious language in the inauguration. President Biden, in his speech, quoted Psalm 30 (recited as part of our morning service each day): “weeping may endure for a night but joy cometh in the morning.” It is a verse of deep comfort in dark times and appropriate as the coronavirus rages across the country.
For every appropriate use of Biblical imagery, there are other, more tortured ones. The day before the inauguration, the president and vice-president elect held a COVID memorial service where Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was sung. Many pointed out that the sexually charged, agnostic lyrics do not conform well to such a setting. They compare it to the patriotic use of “Born in the USA”, which Bruce Springsteen wrote as an indictment of his country’s military recruitment policies.
Perhaps Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was misused, but it follows a long tradition of Jewish prayer and music. The ancient rabbis often take Biblical verses out of context in liturgical settings for their own theological purpose, and probably the most famous piece of synagogue music, “Kol Nidrei”, has lyrics that don’t really fit the tune. Cohen’s song is so popular today because of the chorus of hallelujahs and its beautiful melody, not its verses. The same can be said of “Kol Nidrei”, whose haunting tune is powerful, but doesn’t really fit its formulaic, legalistic lyrics.
Presidential inaugurals have always appropriated religious language and will probably do so long into the future. Leaders use these texts for their own purposes, and in that they are following in a long tradition. Scripture is so large and diverse it can be used for almost any message. The question is not whether the text is quoted out of context or not. The question is whether the message lifts us up and gives us hope.