When new presidents are inaugurated, they traditionally lay their hand on the Bible for their swearing-in. Occasionally, as in the cases of Barack Obama and John F. Kennedy, the Bibles are left closed. Usually, however, they are opened—either to a random page, or to a verse of the president’s choosing. (A few presidents were so pious—or so in need of divine assistance—that they used two Bibles! One for each hand.)
In the cases where the presidents themselves chose the verses to which the Bible would be opened, the verses they picked say a lot about who they were, and how they saw themselves. A list is available as an appendix in Jon Meacham’s excellent book, American Gospel.
The picks by Wilson, FDR, Nixon, and Reagan were very appropriate to their times.
Woodrow Wilson’s second inauguration came in 1917, shortly after the US entered World War I. His chosen passage—Psalm 46—expressed both the horror of the war and the hope that it could be brought to a peaceful resolution. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” the Psalm says. “Therefore we will not fear. . . . Come, behold the works of the Lord, what desolations he hath made in the earth. He maketh wars to cease unto the ends of the earth; he breaketh the bow, and cutteth the spear in sunder; he burneth the chariot in fire.” The choice of this verse expressed the popular hope that this would be the “war to end all wars.” Wilson was already planning the creation of his League of Nations after war’s end, which he hoped would establish a lasting world peace.
Franklin D. Roosevelt used one passage for all four of his nominations: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, but have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal… faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity” (1 Corinthians 13:13). That the president of the New Deal chose a passage about charity is telling.
Richard Nixon, who entered the White House with the promise to honorably resolve the Vietnam War, also chose an appropriate verse for the times. “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4). (He didn’t exactly pursue a spears-to-pruning hooks policy upon taking office, I’m afraid. But he did get us out of there eventually, so there’s that.)
Ronald Reagan‘s pick reflects perhaps the conservative Christian agenda with which he allied himself. 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”
A couple of the more troubling choices came from Grant and Eisenhower.
Ulysses S. Grant picked Isaiah 11:1-3, which famously begins, “And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,” and so on. Even if we give Grant the benefit of the doubt and assume he was applying this prophecy to Jesus rather than to himself, this was not a very religiously cosmpolitan choice. Grant had a history of anti-Semitism, so the choice of a popular Christian prooftext from the Hebrew Bible was an inauspicious beginning to his presidency. Fortunately he seems to have subsequently reversed his view of Jews and treated them much better in his role as president than he had in his role as general.
Dwight D. Eisenhower‘s 1957 inaugural verse seems to reflect a belief in American exceptionalism. “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,” it says, “and the people he hath chosen for his own inheritance” (Psalm 33:12). The belief in America’s chosenness has, of course, undergirded much of the expansionism, interventionism, and general militancy of its foreign policy. In Eisenhower’s defense, he was one of our less militaristic presidents.
Some of the more pious picks came from Coolidge, Clinton, and Bush Jr.
Calvin Coolidge went with the highly theological Johannine Prologue, which reads in part, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.”
Bill Clinton in 1993 picked a surprisingly spiritual passage, Galatians 6:8: “For he that soweth to his flesh shall reap corruption, but he that soweth to the Spirit shall reap life everlasting.” Yeah, cue all the snarky comments about which kind of sowing Bill is most famous for. But it’s worth pointing out that the man’s a Southern Baptist and more genuinely religious, I think, than most people realize.
George W. Bush in 2005 chose a verse that accords well with his reputation as a praying president. “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).
I think my personal favorite pick—humble and cosmopolitan—came from McKinley.
William McKinley, in 1897, prayed the prayer of Solomon in 2 Chronicles 1:10. “Give me now wisdom and knowledge, that I may go out and come in before this people: for who can judge this thy people, that is so great?” Now that’s a presidential Bible verse.