An inauguration is democracy's version of a coronation. It's democracy that makes the difference. The president wears no crown, carries no scepter, walks unanointed by God. He wears a simple suit, sometimes with an expensive label, but nothing in satin or silk. He takes the oath of office for a mere four years armed only with an understandable hope of doing it again four years hence. In the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower at his inauguration, "The people elect leaders not to rule, but to serve."
Once the president is sworn in, he makes a speech articulating his hopes and dreams for the people who elected him, sometimes telling the rest of the world what they can expect from him, too.
"Ask not what your country can do for you," John F. Kennedy famously said in his inaugural address in 1961, "ask what you can do for your country." What followed is often lost in memory, but no less important, addressed to his fellow citizens of the world: "Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man." The Europeans could usefully hear that again.
I spent the season between November and January reading inaugural addresses. They not only reflect the man himself, but the history of the moment. Some soar with poetic cadences, others are blunt and workmanlike, still others puffed up as with wind. No doubt Barack Obama has read much of that rhetoric as he crafts (with the assistance of a helpful ghost) the words he will speak next Tuesday. But behind each speech is yet another creator, who George Washington called "the Great Author of every public and private good," who conducts the affairs of men with "an Invisible Hand."
We firmly separate the established church and the state, but presidents who swear to uphold the Constitution nearly always call on heavenly intercession. Thomas Jefferson, who was attacked as an infidel and a disciple of Voltaire, a man who would cast Bibles into bonfires, reflected at his second inaugural on his reliance on God, suggesting that America was the new Promised Land: "I shall need, too, the favor 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."