For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
At noon today, President Donald J. Trump officially began his term as president of the United States, taking the Oath of Office from Chief Justice John Roberts and with his hand on two Bibles — one from his family, the other belonging to Abraham Lincoln.
As with Trump’s presidential campaign, the inauguration was both unprecedented and deeply imbued with the real estate tycoon’s personality. This was one of the most prayer-filled inaugurals ever seen. It was both invocatory and covenantal, echoing many of his campaign promises. And then there is Trump’s very clear vision for the country, as a place where the “righteous public” is served by a government that understands its place, where there is genuine opportunity and the chance to work and live in safety and where all Americans are united in a common purpose that is rooted in love of country and patriotism rather than subservience to a self-enriching and overweening federal government. Trump’s America, as expressed not just in his speech, but in his choices to deliver the prayers and benediction, is also boldly, confidently faithful to the Judeo-Christian heritage.
In his nomination acceptance speech in Cleveland last summer, then-candidate Trump laid out his stark — some claimed, even dark — vision of an America in need of rescue. It was an evaluation of an America as plagued by incompetent and corrupt government, severe income inequalities, lost jobs, stagnant wages and soaring crime — and that analysis resonated with voters who had felt abandoned and ignored over the previous decade, even after the supposed recovery from the great recession of 2008.
Trump returned to that fundamental message in his inauguration speech. He did not offer an abundance of lofty rhetorical devices, nor did he extend the traditional olive branch to his political opponents. Trump remained entirely true to himself, surrendered nothing of his now-legendary brash and even caustic temperament and delivered what his supporters both expected and desired.
Now as an executive who has assumed control of the government, he expects clearly to work with his party’s leadership to advance his agenda, with a great deal of leadership to be provided by Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Today’s ceremony,” the new president declared, “has very special meaning. Because today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people.”
He plans to dismantle much of the policy machinery installed by Barack Obama in favor not so much of a smaller government, but one that is oriented toward serving its citizens. He asserted:
Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are the just and reasonable demands of a righteous public.
But for too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
This American malaise stops right here and stops right now:
We are one nation — and their pain is our pain. Their dreams are our dreams; and their success will be our success. We share one heart, one home and one glorious destiny.
For a candidate who tended always to make himself the story and the main focus of attention, Trump used the word “I” most sparingly in his inauguration speech. Barack Obama became famous as an orator, and part of his personal style was to be self-referential. The sharp change in philosophy and vision could not have been plainer in Trump’s use of the pronoun “we” throughout his speech. As with his oath, it brought to a final crowning point his strategically adroit turning of Hillary Clinton’s campaign motto “I’m with her” to the more populist promise of “I’m with you.”
But Trump then went beyond a mere customary litany of campaign promises. He made the oath of office a political covenant with the American people. Much as he made promises to the pro-life movement and to Catholics during the campaign, in his inauguration speech, Trump pledged himself to the nation. “The oath of office I take today,” he said, “is an oath of allegiance to all Americans.”
With all covenants, there are things promised, but such oaths also impose upon the taker a set of curses, should they be broken. In that sense, Trump imbued his speech with a religious sensibility that matched perfectly the deeply prayerful tone of the entire inauguration ceremony. The oath of office was bookended by prayer from different religious leaders, including the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. In all, there were three invocations and three benedictions, along with hymns and Trump’s own references to God.
At one point, the new president observed, “Whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same Almighty Creator.”
With his choice of religious leaders for the prayers and benedictions, Trump announced that he sees America as a place of welcome to other faiths, but that, at its heart, America must be a Christian country. True, he invited a rabbi to be a part of the benediction — and on Saturday he was scheduled to attend a prayer service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., that included leaders of 26 different faith groups. But on the grandest of stages and at the moment when Trump intended to lay out his vision for the country, the name of Jesus Christ was invoked repeatedly.
How this will impact the actual function of government and the crafting of policy going forward is one of the many questions yet to be answered. What is obvious, however, is that the political establishment in Washington has been shaken by a new president who has proclaimed himself beholden now not to them, but to the American people.
All politicians are answerable in the end to the voters, but Trump has launched his presidency with a dramatic pledge to Americans. “I will fight for you with every breath in my body,” he said, “and I will never, ever let you down.” Leaders of both major parties and millions of Americans now will find out if he can deliver.