The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

It’s Tuesday, January 19, 2021.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

How Does the American Inauguration of a President Compare to the British Coronation of a Monarch? It’s a Very Revealing Comparison

The inauguration of the President of the United States will take place on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., but in anticipation of that event, now fully a day away, I want to try to help Christians and, in particular, Christian parents and others, to think about the meaning of these events and also to get ready to interpret these events and explain them to others. That’s because there’s a lot more going on here than most Americans understand, something that Christians need to understand at a far deeper level.

Now, let me just give a little bit of background here. Let’s consider the fact that what we are going to be witnessing on Wednesday is the peaceful transfer of power. It will be the 59th presidential inauguration scheduled in the history of the United States of America. Joseph R. Biden, Jr. of Delaware will become the 46th President of the United States. The oath of office heretofore has been given 77 times to 44 different people. Well, you say, “Donald Trump was the 45th President of the United States. How are the only 44 men who have been president?” So, that’s because Grover Cleveland served as both the 22nd and the 24th President of the United States, and thus, he is counted twice, but only 44 men have ever taken the oath of office. On Wednesday, Joe Biden will become the 45th, the 45th individual but the 46th President of the United States.

Now, we need to step a good deal further back than just considering the fact that this is a part of our constitutional order. We need to go back to the fact that every single government and every single government leader of considerable power has to be understood as holding power by some authority. The question is, by whose authority? Well, if you go back to the divine right of kings, you understand, just to give an example, that the British monarch rules and reigns, in so far as the British monarch currently rules and reigns, by the divine right of kings or queens as it is known. It is a divine sanction that is claimed, and that’s made very clear in the coronation of a British monarch, but the president of the United States is not a monarch.

The president of the United States does not gain legitimacy by the divine right to presidents. There is no such thing, but in the view of God and the entire nation, the President of the United States, having been elected to office, takes office on behalf of the governed. It is the consent of the governed that is at the very center of the American constitutional order, but let’s go back to Britain. Let’s go back to England for just a moment. What does it mean that a British monarch is crowned in the process of what is known as a coronation? The word “coronation” actually only means crowning. It’s the official commemorative crowning of a British monarch. It has taken place over and over again in England, now Britain, down through the centuries, and it follows a very traditional majestic pattern.

Now, as you’re thinking about the coronation of the British monarch, the crowned monarch also makes an oath, the coronation oath, and it takes place not in view of the entire British people but actually, behind a screen in which the only participants are limited to the monarch whose coronation is taking place and the head of the church of England, the Archbishop of Canterbury or whoever the church has deputized to undertake this responsibility. Following the example of Samuel with Saul in the Old Testament, the monarch is anointed with oil, invoking not only a political and regal but a ministerial duty on behalf of the people.

In recent coronations, the music that has been played and sung in the background to the most intense moment in which the coronation oath is given and taken, it is William Frideric Handel’s Zadok the Priest, making an intentional, even musical connection between the kings of Israel and the monarchs of the United Kingdom. What is invoked is a biblical solemnity and the divine right of kings, God’s anointing through a priest of the monarch. It is a very meaningful event, and it is central to the identity of the United Kingdom. It is central to the history of England, but it is against that monarchial pattern that the American experiment and constitutional self-government was devised, but how would there be an American transfer?

In the British system, there is a great deal of pageantry, and the coronation actually takes place in Westminster Abbey, which is a place of worship, one of the most historic places of worship in all of Christendom. The music that is played during a British coronation is some of the most beautiful in the entire English language. As a matter of fact, one of the central anthems that is used in a coronation and recently in royal weddings is a piece that is drawn from the 122nd Psalm, which is known as “I Was Glad,” as in, “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.” The most spectacular arrangement of that Psalm is by Charles Hubert Hastings Parry in the anthem that was written for the coronation of King Edward VII in 1902. Similar arrangements for coronations had been done by composers William Boyce and Henry Purcell. In any event, the music is absolutely majestic, and the context is worship.

I am an American. I am not British. I am not a monarchist, but I do love the music of the English church and in particular, the majesty of the biblical language that is put to tune and to anthem for the context of ceremonial occasions in Britain such as the coronation of a monarch, but the British coronation of a monarch is in the background. In the foreground is, how we would, in the United States in a constitutional Republic, how we would commemorate the investiture in office of the nation’s new chief executive, the new president of the United States? Would it be a service of worship? No. Presidents have generally participated in worship services, but the inauguration ceremony itself is not a worship service although in every single inauguration, some kind of prayer has been given. There is formality. There’s a certain kind of secular liturgy, a constitutional liturgy that has been involved, going all the way back as so many things presidential go all the way back, to the nation’s first chief executive, George Washington around whom, frankly, the founders at least partly invented the office of president of the United States.

It’s also interesting to watch the nomenclature, a British monarch is crowned in a coronation ceremony. An American president is merely invested in office in what is known as an inaugural or an inauguration ceremony. Inauguration in this sense just means the beginning of the term. Now, behind that is also a great deal of interest because as a matter of fact, until 1937, presidents of the United States, having been elected back before the end of the previous year, were not inaugurated until March the 4th of the year following their election. Now, how did that work? Well, it was not by accident. March 4 of 1789 was the first operational day of the new constitutional republic known as the United States of America, and thus, the day, March the 4th, 1789 becomes day one of America’s constitutional government, but it created a problem that became very apparent by the early 20th century. That was that the period of time that a newly elected president had to wait to enter office was simply too long.

It made more sense back in the horse and buggy age when it took some time for a newly elected president even to know that he had been elected, much less to assemble a government, but by the time you get to the 1930s, the problem is the opposite. There are urgent matters of national attention that need movement, and that movement in presidential leadership can’t happen if you have a lame duck president for a matter of long months. The same thing was true of Congress. There was a lame duck Congress in office for far too long, so the United States passed what became known as the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, moving the opening day of the new Congress to January the 3rd and the first date of a new presidential administration to January the 20th and not only January the 20th, but January the 20th at exactly noon, Washington time.

At noon Washington time, a new presidential term begins, but it doesn’t begin with the newly elected president or the re-elected president merely serving in a passive role. Rather, the one singular focus of the Constitution ceremony has to do with an oath of office. The one thing that must happen in a presidential inauguration is that the president must receive and must respond to the oath of office. He must, to use the language, take an oath. That oath of office is just a few words. It comes down to this. The president must state, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States and will, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.”

Now, the words so help me God are not in the constitutional language, and furthermore, the updated constitutional language allows a president to affirm rather than to swear the faithful execution of the office of president of the United States and the entirety of the oath of office, but nonetheless, no matter what verb or noun may be used here, it is indeed an oath of office. It is required of the president of the United States, and without that oath of office, the president is not invested with constitutional responsibility. That’s very interesting. That is the one thing that must happen in an American presidential inauguration, and it is the one thing, which is common to both the coronation of a British monarch and the inauguration of an American president. It is the giving and the taking of an oath.

In early years of the American presidency, the president could merely say I do, but now, as is the case also in most formal wedding ceremonies, the vow must be not only affirmed but repeated so that the words have particular import, and the words are coming from the President of the United States himself. Now, just to go back to the math for a moment, there have been 77 administrations of the oath of office, but there are only 45 presidents of the United States including Joe Biden who will be the 78th to take the oath of office. Why is the one number so much larger than the second? Well, it is because those presidents who have become presidents because of the death of the president when they were vice-president, they have not been inaugurated, but they have taken the oath of office.

Similarly, the same thing was true of Gerald Ford in 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, and Ford became the new president of the United States. By the way, as a footnote, the only individual to become president having been elected neither vice-president or president of the United States.

Part II

To What Should Christians—And Christian Parents in Particular—Pay Attention During Wednesday’s Inauguration? The Pageant of Democracy on Full Display

The rest of the traditional American presidential inauguration is that. It is America’s national tradition. It isn’t demanded by the United States Constitution even though the office is defined in the Constitution and the oath of office is defined in the Constitution, but there are other events including prayers, some presidents have included the readings of poetry, and the central event of expectation in most presidential inaugural ceremonies is the inaugural address, which again, is not required or even mentioned in the Constitution but is very much a part of our constitutional set of virtues.

We expect a president to articulate something very meaningful upon the president’s elevation to the highest office in the land. Once he takes that office and once he takes the oath of office, once the Marine Band has responded with “Ruffles and Flourishes” and “Hail to the Chief,” once there has been the 21-gun salute fired by artillery from the presidential gun salute battery of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment known traditionally as the Old Guard, once that has taken place, the president then delivers the inaugural address.

Interestingly, in some previous decades, the presidential inaugural addresses come before taking the oath of office, but the current system makes much more sense with the president delivering the address as president, not as the about to become president. There is music in most inaugurations including sometimes, choral music, but most importantly, the role played by the United States Marine Band, historically known as The President’s Own, the band that has the honor of introducing the president by the presidential music officially adopted by the United States government, “Ruffles and Flourishes,” followed by “Hail to the Chief.” The music is actually part of the story here. It’s a part of the pageantry of democracy, but the music is also serving something that may be a bit unconscious to most Americans.

If they’re paying attention, then they would note it, at least in most inaugural ceremonies but not, sadly enough, in the case of Wednesday’s ceremony. What am I talking about? I’m talking about the fact that in most American inaugural ceremonies, present at the ceremony is both the outgoing president and the incoming president, and music actually plays a very important role in most presidential inaugurations where there is a transfer of power. It plays a very important role in symbolizing what is taking place. What am I talking about here? Well, the president who is leaving office enters the inaugural stand, and here’s played in recognition of his role for the very last time as president of the United States, “Hail to the Chief.” Then, immediately after, the new president takes the oath of office, there are the “Ruffles and Flourishes”. Then, there is the playing for the first time of Hail to the Chief to the newly inaugurated President of the United States. Then, that’s followed by the 21-gun salute. The music is actually far more than symbolic here. “Hail to the Chief” played last. “Hail to the Chief” played first.

Now, when we’re talking about a change of administrations in the United States, we see another huge contrast with, just to give an example, the central example against which the American experiment was defined, of the British monarchy. When does a British monarch become king or queen? At the moment of coronation? No, at the moment of the death of the previous monarch. Now, that gets really interesting, and behind that is also a part of the tradition of the divine right of kings. The woman who became Elizabeth II, the current Queen of England, was in Africa as the Princess Elizabeth in 1952 when her father, King George VI, died in London. When did he die? No one really knows. It was at some point in the night, he was found having expired.

When did Elizabeth II become Queen? When she was told? When she was coronated? When she returned to London? No. She became Queen the moment that her father, King George VI drew his last breath. No human being knows when that is, but according to the British understanding, the historic English understanding, God knows. Since we’re talking about the divine right of monarchs, God knew exactly when George VI died and when Elizabeth II ascended to the throne. She didn’t know it yet. She wouldn’t know it for some time. The British people didn’t know it either until they found out.

Now, the whole point here is that according to the British system, the historic English system, you’re not supposed to have the outgoing monarch present at the coronation of the incoming monarch. The coronation, after all, takes place after the monarch has assumed office. That means long after the previous monarch has died. The American system, in contrast, is established not by the divine right of the president but rather by the consent of the governed, made clear through an election, and the process of an inauguration where there is a change of administrations is to demonstrate that.

Sadly, it’s extremely revealing about the character of Donald J. Trump, the current President of the United States, that he has denied the legitimacy of his successor, and he has refused to attend the inauguration. That’s something that hasn’t happened in the living memory of the United States of America. It robs Americans of hearing Hail to the Chief, followed by Hail to the Chief. It robs all the people of the United States and the watching world of the visuals of an outgoing president and an incoming president, standing together, having, in most cases, ridden together from The White House to the inaugural ceremony itself, and then the departing president, going back to private life and the incoming president, going back to The White House and going into the Oval Office as president for the very first time.

Another part of the transitional lore and tradition in the United States is that when there is a change of administration, the outgoing president writes a personal and confidential handwritten note to the incoming president, seals it, and puts it in the center drawer of the desk in the Oval Office. In recent administrations, that means the Resolute desk. As I said, my hope is that American Christians will pay attention to the inaugural ceremony and understand what’s going on here. It is indeed a part of the pageant of democracy. I hope that parents and children, families will watch the inauguration together, that parents will help to explain the component pieces of the inauguration, the meaning of the oath of office, and what it means that an elected president as chief executive and head of state faces the American people, standing in recent inaugurations, on the West front of the Capitol and that majestic setting, and then not only takes the oath of office, swears the oath as the Constitution says, but also then goes on to deliver an inaugural address, speaking to the American people and to the world for the first time as the American president.

Now, we also need to face the fact that when Joe Biden takes the oath of office as the 46th President of the United States, he’s going to be facing a divided nation. There will be political division even on the inaugural platform. There is political division in this country everywhere you look. I did not vote for Joe Biden as President of the United States, but he is the elected President of the United States, and if there is one unifying moment, even as yesterday on The Briefing, I was extremely critical of Joe Biden and the policies and decisions that he has already announced, the fact is that as of noon on January the 20th of 2021, Joseph Biden will become the 46th President of the United States, and that means he is our president.

On The Briefing this week, I’m going to talk about the contested issue of presidential legitimacy and the threat that represents to the republic especially as understood by constitutional conservatives, but we will save that for another day. Today, we need to recognize that every form of government requires a certain pageantry. Every single government must demonstrate its meaningfulness and its legitimacy by some kind of public ritual, and especially where there is an experiment in ordered liberty and constitutional self-government, all this becomes even more important because we have a people’s government, we have a people’s capital, we have a people’s presidency, and we have a people’s inauguration. The presidential term is not for life. It is a definite four-year term, and that means, Lord willing, on January the 20th of 2025, there will be another inaugural ceremony, and the candidate who was elected president the previous November will take office as the newly inaugurated president of the United States.

Obviously, at this point, we do not know who that individual will be, but it is a part of our civic commitment, and it is a part of our Christian commitment as citizens of the United States and very eager participants in this rare experiment in ordered liberty, it is our expectation, it must be our goal that the right individual be inaugurated as President of the United States in January of 2025, but the important issue is this. This week, we will integrate the 46th president of the United States, and according to Scripture, it is the Christian responsibility to pray for those in authority. If that includes kings, it also certainly includes presidents.

Just as soon as he enters the Oval Office as president on Wednesday, Joe Biden has indicated that he is going to undertake several presidential actions including executive orders, and I consider many of those, in anticipation, already abhorrent. I’ll deal with those when the time comes. I talked about them a bit on The Briefing yesterday, but the point is the inaugural ceremony itself is a moment for all Americans and one that is a very rare, in terms of world history, exceedingly rare demonstration of the peaceful transfer of power in the United States that goes all the way back to the transfer of power that took place between John Adams and his great political enemy, though personal friend, Thomas Jefferson, when Jefferson defeated Adams to become the third president of the United States. That peaceful transfer of power in 1801 is what we hope will be fully evident in Washington on Wednesday, 220 years later.

Part III

Should Christians Take a Public Oath? What is an Oath, Anyway?

One final note here for Christians, some Christians wonder about the president taking an oath or affirming an oath. Doesn’t the Bible say that we should not take oath as Christians? Didn’t Jesus reference this in the Sermon on the Mount? Doesn’t the book of James refer to this, saying, “Let your yay be yay and your nay be nay?” It’s actually a very interesting question and a somewhat complicated question because even in Hebrew 6, God is said to vow. We are also told that angels have made oath or made vows. By the way, in English, vow generally refers to a private affirmation. An oath refers to a commitment that is made in public, but that’s not always particularly clear because marriage vows are most significant because they are also public, so we’ll just consider that the words vow and oath refer to basically the same thing.

In Matthew 5, Jesus says, “Do not take an oath at all either by heaven for it is the throne of God, or by the earth for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem for it is the city of the great king.” Now, that’s in the Sermon on the Mount. James refers to the very same principle in James 5:12, “Let your yay be yay and your nay be nay.” Does that mean that Christians should never swear an oath, as in giving testimony in a court or entering an office like president of the United States, or for that matter, entering into the sacred vows of marriage in a marriage ceremony? Most Christians have understood that both Jesus and James are referring to the fact that, number one, Christian should never vow or take an oath to do something that they do not intend to do.

Secondly, they should not take a vow or make an oath to undertake something that it is not within their power to do, and go on and say a third thing. They should not have to claim a divine or other authority to add credibility to their yes or their no. So, if we’re talking about Christians, using God’s name or making a vow or taking an oath as a way of buttressing our own character saying yes or no, well, Jesus and James would tell us that’s a problem, but in so far as we enter into an office or take an oath, or we enter into the responsibility to give testimony in public, we may take an oath or swear an oath because it is what is required of every member of the population under the same circumstances. It is not as if we are claiming a divine sanction because we’re not trustworthy. It is because we are willing before God and humanity to say we are, before God, going to say what is true. We’re going to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or as the President of the United States will say with hand uplifted and often with a hand on the Bible, he will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and all the other words of the presidential oath.

Now, finally in conclusion, the last words you probably remember of the presidential oath are the words, so help me, God. Most presidents have used those words. Historians debate whether George Washington used those words, but the point is this. The presence of those words is a way of making very clear that every human being taking that oath of office understands that there is a divine judge who is watching. There is a superior authority whose infinite authority exceeds that of the American president, and if those words are not heard, well, Americans are going to notice. I’ll predict that those words are certainly going to be heard on Wednesday, and if Christians don’t know to do anything else, the one thing we know is that we are to pray for those in authority over us, and we are to pray to God, indeed for our nation. We need to pray. May God bless the United States of America, and may God make the United States of America a blessing to the world.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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