Could a President Keep These Vows?

Chris and I sat in Arefa’s today and watched the inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. A lot went through my mind. I was deeply moved seeing the faces of older African Americans watching the events of the day and wondering to myself how significant this day is for them. I found myself grateful for the country I live in when Chris reminded me how rare of an event it is in our world to see power change hands so easily and peacefully. I was honored when Marie, the owner of Arefa’s, entrusted me with the TV remote control during the inauguration. (Okay, so this last point pales in comparison with the others…)

 

What caught my attention most, though, was the actual oath President Obama took. My first thought was, “That was… short.” In fact, the Presidential Oath of Office is shorter than the Vice Presidential Oath. (Anyone know why that is?) When I shared this observation with Chris, he commented, “Yeah. Our ordination vows are longer the Presidential Oath of Office.”

 

This sent my Presbyterian mind racing. Being raised Presbyterian, one of the things I was always taught to appreciate about our heritage was the Presbyterian influence on the American political system. The representative democracy of our country derives from the Presbyterian practice of congregations being ruled by a ‘session’ of elders, and the larger denomination by elders and pastors from churches across the country. We have Presbyterian polity to thank for our American political system. What if, though, oaths of office were influenced by Presbyterian ordination vows?

 

When I was ordained back in September, I had to give an affirmative answer to each of these questions:

 

1.)    Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit?

2.)    Do you accept the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to you?

3.)    Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?

4.)    Will you be a minister of the Word and Sacrament in obedience to Jesus Christ, under the authority of Scripture, and continually guided by our confessions?

5.)    Will you be governed by our church’s polity, and will you abide by its discipline? Will you be a friend among your colleagues in ministry, working with them, subject to the ordering of God’s Word and Spirit?

6.)    Will you in your own life seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love your neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world?

7.)    Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?

8.)    Will you seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?

9.)    Will you be a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news in Word and Sacrament, teaching faith, and caring for people? Will you be active in government and discipline, serving in the governing bodies of the church; and in your ministry will you try to show the love and justice of Jesus Christ?

 

Could these vows be adapted for a president, or any political ruler? A few references would need to be changed. The church would be changed to the American people, the Scriptures to the constitution, and the confessions perhaps to the rulings, decisions and policies of Supreme Courts past and present, and previous presidents. This does, of course leave one more reference that would need to be changed, but I can’t think of anything comparable to Jesus Christ or the Triune God that could be substituted where reference is made to them. (Perhaps this shows the weakness of government in a religiously plural society. There’s no Higher Power apart from an abstract concept to which the country’s leader can be expected to submit. But we’ll save that for a different blogpost…)

 

What do you all think? Would it be reasonable for a president to take vows comparable to these? What if the presidential oath of office included vows to work for the reconciliation of the world? Or vows to further the peace, unity and purity of America? Or vows to serve the American people with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? Would this matter?

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One thought on “Could a President Keep These Vows?

  1. The Lordship and Headship of Jesus Christ are integral to the vows. Without Jesus, the vows lose their meaning. For example, without the reconciliation of Christ, working for the reconciliation of the world does not have a clear meaning: On what basis would there be forgiveness? On whose terms would reconciliation come? What would the end result look like?

    I don’t believe these vows are transferable to a pluralistic context. On the other hand, it’s not clear to me whether pluralism allows an adequate foundation for government, either. Yes, the founders were more Deist than Christian and established freedom of religion. But they also believed in a set of universal, God-given principles that were basically Judeo-Christian.
    For most of America’s history there has been a nearly total consensus on these principles, but that is no longer true today. It remains to be seen how this will affect the country going forward.

    What about serving with energy, intelligence, imagination and love? I’m not sure this vow matters much in any context. Sure, it is great to encourage these values in pastors, but it is too vague and platitudinous to be meaningful as a vow. Could anyone ever disagree with it? Could you imagine someone being taken to court for breaking it? Personally, I think our vows would be better if they were much more concise. Right now they contain a lot of ambiguity and repetition–probably a symptom of being repeatedly edited and augmented over the years.

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