National Catholic Register

Commentary

Obama’s Oath of Humility

BY Kathryn Jean Lopez

February 1-7, 2009 Issue | Posted 1/23/09 at 11:05 AM

 

There was a very beautiful moment during the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States. The oath of office was flubbed.

The significance of the moment was lost on many a news anchor who ridiculed the Republican chief justice for an error. Others were more understanding, noting that it was the first inauguration for both Roberts and Obama.

Chief Justice John Roberts started. President-in-the-making Barack Obama jumped in and wound up repeating the beginning. Then Roberts directed: “that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully.” It’s actually “faithfully execute.” Roberts gave it another go. Obama tried to clean it up. They eventually got on script. And they redid the whole thing for safety.

The oath didn’t go smoothly for the two powerful men, representing two of the three branches of the federal government.

The slipup was an opportunity for reflection for a city that’s not all that into examination of conscience. It was, in a way, an incarnation of the prayer that opened the ceremony.

Evangelical pastor Rick Warren had prayed for the humility of the then-president-elect of the United States.

“Give to our new president, Barack Obama,” said Warren, “the wisdom to lead us with humility, the courage to lead us with integrity, the compassion to lead us with generosity.”

I’m not sure, though, that the crowd appreciated the humbling moment for what it was. But then, I’m not entirely sure they were listening to the prayer in the first place.

Rick Warren reminded us why all eyes were on the Capitol steps that Tuesday afternoon: “in His name.”

We’re a nation not just where you are free to believe or not to believe; we’re a nation founded for Him — so we could praise Him, so we could do His will. Warren began his prayer as a gentle reminder to those privileged with seats and every Joe sitting on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial:

“Almighty God — our Father. Everything we see, and everything we can’t see, exists because of you alone. It all comes from you. It all belongs to you. It all exists for your glory.”

After a morning of “Obama!” chants, I would have loved to hear some of the crowd — or the president-to-be — join Warren in praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Alas.

The crowd got into the Rev. Joseph Lowery’s much more entertaining (and controversial) closing prayer, which invited affirmation rather than supplication from those gathered. That prayer went down easier than Warren’s. But we’re not always that into Him when we’re thinking about us.

In a town of doers, it’s easy to forget Him, especially when your daily schedule is all about you — your campaign, your vote, your speech, your award.

But we need to be. Washington ought to take to heart not only the unintentional act of humility we witnessed surrounding the oath of office during the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, but some of the parting words of the 43rd.

During his final press conference, President George W. Bush, reflecting on his time in office said: “The phrase ‘burdens of the office’ is overstated.”

“Oh, the burdens,” he mocked. “Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?” He dismissed the “Why me?” question. Bush dismissed that question as “self pity.” “It’s just — it’s pathetic, isn’t it?”

Such a manly statement of responsibility and gratitude — and if you heard the whole thing, you know that he knew it was a great privilege to serve — should be an admonishment and a warning to a city of people who stand proud, but should also be willing to drop to their knees asking for forgiveness and, always, humility.

How fitting then, that as his replacement was sworn in, the power and glory of the presidency was exposed as mere humanity.

Humanity is a bipartisan thing, and it was in this beautiful moment: The chief justice, appointed by a Republican, with a reputation for flawlessness, and the new president, a Democrat who is rarely called on flaws, in the midst of the most regal ceremony we have as a nation, stood before us as two men, just like the rest of us, imperfect, and perfectly capable of messing up lines, even, or even especially, with what seemed like the entire world watching.

It was a glorious highlight of a day full of light and dark.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online (NationalReview.com).