The Promise of American Renewal

On 20th January 2017, one of the great rituals of modern politics took place: the inaugural address of a new President of the United States of America.

In this short study, Rabbi Sacks asks the question: Do we really fully understand the significance and history of this particular institution, and what it represents in a broader sense?

On the 20th January 2017 will take place one of the great rituals of modern politics, by which of course, I mean, the Inaugural Address of a President, the 45th President of the United States. And the question I'm going to ask is, do we fully realise the significance and the history of this particular institution and what it represents in a broader sense? And that is what I'd like to show you.

We don't, of course, know what the 45th President of the United States is going to say on that day. But if I'm right, then we do know in advance what he is going to do. He is going to renew the covenant. Now, let me explain.

It was in 1967 that the great American sociologist, Robert Bellah published an absolutely landmark article on Civil Religion in America in which, he argued that America does, in fact, have its own religion, not in the sense of something like Judaism, or Christianity, a religion that you practise in home or in a house of worship, but rather a set of rituals and stories that help define what it is to be an American and what it is to have an American identity and American ideals. And the very interesting thing that he pointed out is that American civil religion is based on a story.

And the story it's based on, is basically the one in the book of Exodus. It's about escaping, from persecution and in search of religious freedom. Only instead of Egypt, of course, you had to read England. Instead of the Red Sea, you had to read the Atlantic Ocean. But the fact is, that Americans were, as Abraham Lincoln said, "The almost-chosen people." And America itself, well, let me quote, from a previous inaugural address, Bill Clinton's second, in which he said, "Guided by the ancient vision of a promised land, let us set our sights on a land of new promise." In other words, here was the Jewish story Moses and the Israelites being lived out in contemporary terms.

Now, how did that ever become the American story? The answer is, of course, because the first settlers in America, the first European settlers, the Pilgrim Fathers, onboard The Mayflower in 1620, and John Winthrop and his community on the Arbella in 1630, were Puritans who absolutely define themselves in terms of the Hebrew Bible, which was engraved on their hearts. And they saw it as their defining text. And what they did was, they actually made a covenant. The Mayflower Compact actually contains these words that “…[we do] solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civic body politic."

And as for John Winthrop onboard the Arbella, he as it were re-enacts the 31st chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses renewing the covenant at the end of his life, and says, "And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel (Deut. 30): 'Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,' in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in His ways and to keep His commandments and His ordinance and His laws, and the articles of our covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied." (John Winthrop, ‘City upon a Hill’, 1630)

And hence, therefore, choose life.

So, those early Pilgrim Fathers saw themselves absolutely as the new Moses, new Israelites, entering the new promised land, and they did so on the basis of a covenant.

Now, we have forgotten the covenant was a key concept in the emergence of the West, from the Middle Ages, into the birth of the modern in the 16th and 17th centuries. Covenant played a vital element in Calvin's Geneva. And then, of course, in Holland and then in Scotland, and then indeed in England under Cromwell and his Puritans. But in America, that concept not merely took hold, but it has kept hold of American political rhetoric from that day to this.

America is the only country in the West, the only country in the world that talks about covenant in this way. Why so? The answer is the covenant societies are quite unusual in the history of politics. They happen when a group of people come together to build a consciously-new society and to do so on the basis of quite explicit ideals.

That's exactly what Abraham Lincoln meant at the beginning of the Gettysburg Address when he spoke about, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” No other country has explicit, ethical, and principled foundations like that. And, of course, that turned out to be the great paradox. America, the country that enacted the formal separation of Church and State, turned out, nonetheless, to be built on clearly religious foundations. That's what G. K. Chesterton meant when he famously called America, “a nation with the soul of a church.”

Now, as you surely know, towards the end of the Bible, in fact, in Deuteronomy chapter 31, Moses issues the last two commands he gave the Israelites. And the first of the two, the 612th command known in Judaism as Hakhel is a command that every seven years the king should gather the people;

Hakhel et-ha’am, ha’anashim vehanashim, vehattaf [vegercha asher bisharecha lema’an yishme’u ulma’an yilm’du v’yar’u et-Hashem Elokeichem v’shamru la’assot et kol divrei haTorah hazot.”],

Gather the whole nation together, the men, the women, the children, a great national assembly, and read to them this Torah, so that they will remember, basically, what makes Jews a nation, what makes Israel a nation.

In other words, the Torah specifies a covenant renewal ceremony every seven years, and we know elsewhere in Tanach not specifically how that ceremony was done, but we do know how Moses renewed the covenant towards the end of his life, that is basically the book of Devarim, how Joshua did so likewise, that's the 24th chapter of the book of Joshua, read about how King Hezekiah did so, King Josiah, and most famously probably Ezra and Nehemiah, in the fifth century BCE, pulling the nation together, renewing the covenant at the Second Temple after the Babylonian exile.

And that, to me, is almost certainly what an American presidential inaugural address is. The nearest equivalent we have anywhere in the world to Hakhel, the 612th command. There is the king, well, the President, America is a Republic, not a monarchy, (and I'm sure there are biblical reasons for that as well.) But the fact is, that here, the President... whoever the President is, reminds the people of what actually made America a nation and what will continue to do so if it keeps faith with the covenant itself.

So, what can you expect to hear in that inaugural address? Well, not all, but at least some of these elements: Number one, a reminder to everyone of what it is to be an American where we have come from as a nation and what is the larger vision that drove our ancestors and us. Number two, there has to be a sense of society as engaged on a journey, the “Lech Lecha”, an Abraham, a Moses and the Israelites, always American presidents speak of covenant as a journey.

Third, there will be reference to the founding ideals: equality, justice, liberty. Somehow those are going to appear. There will be, fourth, a reference to God. Every single inaugural address since 1799, with one exception, Washington's second in 1793, which is a very, very short speech, but every single other inaugural address has contained a reference to God, again something you won't find in any other nation right now in the Western world. Fifthly, there is a phrase that is always used in America, never incidentally used in Britain, that will be somewhere in it the phrase, "We, the people." Sixthly, there will be some reference to collective responsibility, that the future of America will be made not by its President, but by the people and it's all of us together. And finally there will be seventh, a moral term to this, which is rare in contemporary politics. It will sound more like a sermon than any speech given by any European politician.

So, let me give you some examples of what it is to renew the covenant. Here, for instance, in one of the most outstanding examples is Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965, "They came here - the exile and the stranger… and they made a covenant with this land, conceived in justice, written in liberty, bound in union. It was meant one day to inspire the hopes of all mankind, and it binds us still."

Or here is, believe it or not, Thomas Jefferson, who was not known for his belief in Divine Providence. He's often thought of as a deist rather than a theist, but here is his second inaugural, 1805, talking precisely about the Exodus story. He says, “I shall need, too, the favour of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications." So, that is Thomas Jefferson sounding really quite sermonical.

Or here is John F. Kennedy, in 1961. Listen carefully to this sentence delivered pretty much almost at the very beginning of the inaugural, "And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe - the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God." That is an American sentence. You will not hear a sentence like that anywhere except in America.

And finally, let's end off with a previous inaugural address, Barack Obama's second in 2013, "Today, we continue," he said, "a never-ending journey." (Remember in covenant, you always see history as a journey.) "While freedom", he said, "is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on earth." You hear that? Our covenant with God, our covenant with one another, and you hear how we, the Americans, are his people, the almost-chosen nation and in a glimpse there back at Abraham Lincoln. And he ends with this sentence, "Let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom." Again, pure covenantal language.

So, here it is, this unique thing, a covenant renewal ceremony at the heart of Western politics, and that's going to happen on the 20th of January, at least, I think it's going to happen. Why is this important? I think, quite simply, because the covenant does need renewing. The West is unsure of itself. It is losing its way in a shallow secularism that really does not fully know where it's going. I think it's important that any political leader in the West, regardless of party politics, reminds us of our collective responsibility, (We are all in this together), reminds us that these truths should “be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights among them, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Those things should never be forgotten.

Thirdly, the sense of “we, the people”, is the most powerful antidote to the curse of our age, incidentally, the curse that Alexis de Tocqueville almost two centuries ago, saw as the greatest danger to American democracy. He called it individualism. When we're all in there only for ourselves and not for the nation as a whole, freedom and democracy are in danger. So, let us hope we see the covenant renewed on the 20th of January, and we see, yet again, a re-emergence of that great gift of the Hebrew Bible to the Western world that I call “the politics of hope”.