Inauguration Day

Found In: Secular Holidays

I don’t worry about whether or not the incoming president was “my” candidate: on Inauguration Day I always feel the excitement borne of possibility and good will.

The idea of ritual is often associated with the seasons of the year or the phases of our individual lives. Sometimes, though, this notion is disrupted by events that reflect other ways of measuring time. This week, Americans will witness a presidential inauguration—a political ritual linked to democracy that still echoes the anointment of ancient kings. I love the drama of this event. I like the way crowds gather to witness the giving of an oath. It reminds me of a wedding, with the president and chief justice representing two partners publicly proclaiming their vows. I enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the proceedings—the speeches, poetry and parades. The inauguration is ritual at its finest; even watching it on TV in my own home gives me a sense of wonder and awe.

In this way, our inauguration ceremony is distinct—and differs notably from the election that precedes it. Elections are rituals too: our private performances in the voting booth lead to scripted actions in the public sphere. Results are forecast, a winner is announced and the defeated candidate eventually concedes. On the other hand, American presidential inaugurations are not about private actions transformed into a collective will. Rather, the inauguration invites us to witness and celebrate the peaceful transfer or continuation of governmental power. It is a celebration of the best of our communal selves. I don’t worry about whether or not the incoming president was “my” candidate: on Inauguration Day I always feel the excitement borne of possibility and good will.

The sociologist Robert Bellah describes an American civil religion with its own texts (i.e., the Declaration of Independence), martyrs (Abraham Lincoln), and holidays (July 4th). This resonates with me. I feel deeply, if not uncritically, American and I look forward to celebrating one of my people’s foundational rites.