President Joe Biden called for Americans to end an “uncivil war” and unite after he was sworn in Jan. 20 as the 46th president of the United States.
Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) encouraged Christians to pray for the new president and his administration.
Biden’s inauguration came after a divisive election in which the results were contested by former President Donald Trump for two months after votes showed the former vice president had defeated the Republican incumbent. Charges by Trump and others of election fraud that failed to succeed in scores of court cases climaxed with thousands of protesters storming the Capitol and sending former Vice President Mike Pence, senators and representatives into hiding after Trump urged them at a Jan. 6 rally to march to the building while Congress met to certify Biden’s Electoral College win.
As many as 25,000 National Guard troops patrolled Washington before and during the inauguration to prevent a repeat of the invasion of the Capitol and to guard against threats regarding the event.
Trump declined to attend the inaugural ceremony, becoming the first U.S. president not to attend his successor’s inauguration in more than 150 years. First Lady Melania Trump and he flew to his Florida home Wednesday morning.
The inauguration arrived also amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has resulted in more than 400,000 American deaths in the last year. Safety measures that included the wearing of masks, some social distancing and limited attendance were implemented and produced a much smaller inauguration crowd than the tens of thousands that typically stretch from the Capitol onto the National Mall.
In a 21-minute speech that did not mention Trump directly, Biden focused on a call to unity, not on policies. He said his “whole soul is in” uniting the country and invited “every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face – anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness. With unity, we can do great things, important things.”
In the wake of the election and the divisive recent years, Biden acknowledged talking about unity “can sound to some like a foolish fantasy.”
“I know that the forces that divide us are deep, and they are real, but I also know they are not new,” he said from the Capitol’s west side. “Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.
“We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal,” Biden said. “We can do this if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts.”
The inauguration of the Democrats Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris was historic in multiple ways. Biden, 78, became the oldest person to hold the presidential office. Harris became the first female, first African American and first Asian American to be vice president.
J.D. Greear, president of the SBC, thanked God “again that He allows us to live in a country where we have freedom and peaceful transfers of power.”
In comments emailed to Baptist Press, Greear asked “all Great Commission Baptists to join me in praying for our new president, Joe Biden, and vice president, Kamala Harris. God commands us to show honor and to lift them up in prayer.”
“Among other things, Southern Baptists care deeply about the protection of life, the promotion of prosperity for all, and the preservation of religious liberty,” said Greear, pastor of The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area. “We pray that God would grant us those things through the new administration, and we urge the new administration to pay careful attention to them. We pray that God would protect them and their families, give them wisdom in making tough decisions, and apply justice to all people and all of life in a way that brings our nation together.”
Ronnie Floyd, president of the SBC Executive Committee, urged Christians to pray for Biden and Harris every day.
“Regardless of the political party in power, they are subject to God’s power and we need to pray for them,” Floyd wrote in his weekly newsletter released Wednesday. “Praying for President Biden and all the nation’s leaders has nothing to do with their party of affiliation. It does, however, have everything to do with your personal responsibility as a Christian.”
Basing his remarks on 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Floyd encouraged followers of Christ to acknowledge God has placed Biden and Harris in their offices, to pray for their protection, to ask God to provide them with wisdom “so they will see what God desires” and to petition God to help them to make decisions that protect America and allow “us to be able live tranquil and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity.”
“America needs prayer today more than ever before,” he said. “While we are facing multiple crises, our greatest problem continues to be spiritual. In fact, our spiritual crisis is the foundational cause of most, if not all, of the other ongoing issues confronting our nation.”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, encouraged Christians to pray that Biden and Harris “would have the wisdom of humility, a sense of justice and a mind for peace.”
Regarding justice, Moore said some things the new president plans to do should gratify Christians – protecting refugees whose lives are endangered, halting the separation of children from their mothers at the southern border and accelerating the effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Others, however, “should grieve us,” Moore said, citing Biden’s expansive support of abortion rights.
“We can pray for President Biden the same way we should pray for ourselves – for success in every good thing that accords with justice, and for lack of success in every bad thing that doesn’t,” he wrote in a column published Wednesday by The Gospel Coalition.
Moore said, “[I]t might be wise for Christians to watch our own souls by means of the emphases in our prayers. Christians who support President Biden should emphasize in their prayers God changing his mind on unjust or imprudent matters – and those who oppose President Biden should emphasize God granting blessing and success to every just and wise initiative of his.”
In his address, Biden pledged he “will be a president for all Americans.”
“If you still disagree, so be it,” Biden said. “That’s democracy. That’s America. Yet hear me clearly – disagreement must not lead to disunion.”
He said “recent weeks and months have taught us [the] painful lesson” that “[t]here is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit.” Americans have an obligation “to defend the truth and defeat the lies,” he said.
Regarding COVID-19, Biden urged Americans to “set aside politics and finally face this pandemic as one nation.” He held a moment of silent prayer during his speech for the victims of the virus.
He also said the United States “will repair our alliances” internationally and “lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”
Biden’s effort to unite Americans will face strong challenges policy-wise from conservatives, as well as pro-life advocates who oppose his intention to roll back regulations under the Trump administration and laws that saved the lives of unborn children and barred some of the government funding of abortion and abortion rights organizations.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts conducted the swearing-in ceremony for Biden, while Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn in by Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
Biden, Harris, their families and congressional leaders from both parties attended a prayer service at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington before the inauguration. The late John Kennedy is the only U.S. president to be Catholic other than Biden.
Catholic priest Leo O’Donovan, former president of Georgetown University, offered the opening prayer during the inauguration, and Silvester Beaman, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Del., prayed the benediction.
Singing during the inaugural ceremony were Lady Gaga, who sang the national anthem; Jennifer Lopez, who performed “This Land Is Your Land” and “America the Beautiful;” and Garth Brooks, who sang “Amazing Grace.”
Amanda Gorman, 22, of Los Angeles became reportedly the youngest inaugural poet when she read her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press.)