THE new President of the United States, Joe Biden, called for peace, unity, and a restoration of democracy immediately after his inauguration as the country’s 46th president at the Capitol in Washington, on Wednesday.
President Biden, who is 78, was sworn in at noon, on a stage adorned with American flags, in front of a reduced and socially distanced crowd of invited members, amid security fears and soaring coronavirus cases in the country. He held a Bible that has reportedly been in his family since 1893 and which was used during his swearing-in as vice-president in 2009 and 2013.
Shortly beforehand, Kamala Harris, with whom he won the election last November, became the first woman, and the first black and Asian-American, to become Vice-President. She was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, using two Bibles, one of which belonged to Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice.
Guests at the ceremony included the former Presidents and their First Ladies Barack and Michelle Obama, George W. and Laura Bush, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. Lady Gaga sang the US national anthem.
President Biden, who is only the second Roman Catholic to become President, began the day by going to mass in St Matthew’s Cathedral, Washington. He is known to attend mass regularly. The celebrant is reported to have said during the service: “Through all the activity of this wonderful day, we quiet ourselves, and ground ourselves.”
On Thursday, President Biden is due to attend an inaugural service of prayer organised by Washington National Cathedral, which is to be held entirely virtually for the first time. It will include prayers, readings, blessings, and hymns. The service dates back to the first inauguration of President George Washington.
The Dean, the Very Revd Randolph Marshall Hollerith, said: “This cathedral is a house of prayer for all people and a sacred space where America gathers in moments of deep significance, and we are honoured to welcome the nation to pause, give thanks and seek God’s help in the hard work ahead.”
PAKamala Harris, before being sworn in as Vice-President
The increased security threat and numbers of coronavirus cases in the country meant that the usual festival services and celebratory events were pared down. In anticipation of disruption, streets were blockaded, high fencing installed, and 25,000 National Guard troops and other law enforcement officers were stationed in the area. These personnel were also vetted by the FBI amid fears of an internal security threat to the ceremony.
On Sunday, small groups of protesters, some of them armed, gathered at statehouses across the US, but they were outnumbered by security enforcement and no clashes were reported.
Washington has been on high alert since the Capitol Building was stormed by thousands of supporters of the former President Donald Trump, with his encouragement, on 6 January. Congress had been meeting to certify the votes of the Electoral College and confirm Biden’s victory (News, 8 January). Five people died in the violence.
Episcopalian bishops in the US, led by the Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry, called for Mr Trump’s immediate removal from office (News, 15 January). Mr Trump was later impeached, but has yet to stand trial.
Mr Trump left the White House at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, by the back door. Typically, the outgoing President would greet the incoming President at the front door. On Tuesday night, in his final presidential speech, he listed what he regards as his achievements in office, and issued more than 100 pardons, including one for his former adviser Steve Bannon, who is accused of fraud. He did not attend the inauguration, the first outgoing President to refuse to do so since 1869.
In his first presidential speech, President Biden, after holding a moment of silence for the the 400,000 people who have died from Covid-19 in the country, referred to the Capitol violence, which happened on the spot on which he was inaugurated. He said: “There is truth and there are lies. Lies told for power and for profit. . . And each of us has a duty and a responsibility. . . to defend the truth and defeat the lies. . .
“Now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries.”
The “uncivil war” between Republicans and Democrats must end, he said. “The answer is not to turn inward, distrusting those who don’t look like you or worship the way you do or don’t get their news from the same source as you do.” He continued: “Without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness and fury. This is our historic moment. . . This is democracy’s day.”
Immediately after the ceremony, President Biden took action to reverse some of his predecessor’s most disputed decisions, including the travel ban on US entry from some Muslim-majority nations and the wall construction on the US Mexico border. He also signed an executive order to return the US to the Paris agreement on climate change, a move that was welcomed by Christian Aid.
The charity’s climate policy lead, Dr Kat Kramer, said: “Donald Trump has been the ultimate stress-test for the accord and, despite his attempts to undermine it, no other country followed him out of the door, and now the world’s biggest historical emitter is back in the fold. . . With the Biden Presidency making climate change a priority, we have the opportunity to usher in a new era to put the world on a safe path.”
President Biden also halted the process, started by the Trump administration, of leaving the World Health Organization (WHO). This was welcomed by the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, as “absolutely critical” for a better coordinated response to the global pandemic. He also welcomed the Biden administration’s commitments to restoring the US refugee resettlement programme.
On the eve of the inauguration, Bishop Curry was among an ecumenical group of 30 faith leaders who offered prayers for the new President in an online vigil. “Teach our leaders to love. Grant them and grant us your loving liberating and life-giving spirit. Move our hearts and then show us the way to break down barriers that divide, to make suspicions disappear and hatreds to cease. There are divisions being healed, wrongs being righted. We may learn to live in justice, love and peace.”
The Church of England issued a special prayer for President Biden, to give him and his administration “gifts and abilities to serve the common good”.
In a message to the new President, Pope Francis said: “I extend cordial good wishes and the assurance of my prayers that Almighty God will grant you wisdom and strength in the exercise of your high office. . . Under your leadership, may the American people continue to draw strength from the lofty political, ethical, and religious values that have inspired the nation since its founding.
“At a time when the grave crises facing our human family call for farsighted and united responses, I pray that your decisions will be guided by a concern for building a society marked by authentic justice and freedom, together with unfailing respect for the rights and dignity of every person, especially the poor, the vulnerable and those who have no voice.”
He concluded: “I likewise ask God, the source of all wisdom and truth, to guide your efforts to foster understanding, reconciliation and peace within the United States and among the nations of the world in order to advance the universal common good. With these sentiments, I willingly invoke upon you and your family and the beloved American people an abundance of blessings.”