Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.
As President Barack Obama puts the finishing touches on his second inaugural address, one in which aides say Obama will take a "hopeful" tone, here are Prothero's picks for the top five U.S. presidential inaugural addresses:
1. Thomas Jefferson's first inaugural (1801)
If you think partisan politics are bad today, you should have seen the election of 1800. Desperately trying to hold onto power, Federalists accused Jefferson of all sorts of infidelities to God and country, blasting him as an infidel and intimating that he might be a secret Jew or Muslim. Soon each side was questioning whether America could survive rule by the opposing party.
The election ended in a tie between Jefferson and his running mate, Aaron Burr. (At the time, the Electoral College cast its ballots without distinguishing between president and vice president, and the two Republicans each got 73 electoral votes, throwing the decision to the House of Representatives.) It took 36 ballots before the House awarded Jefferson the presidency. Into this maelstrom, Jefferson delivered perhaps the most conciliatory inaugural address in U.S. history, "better liked by our own party than his own," in the words of Massachusetts Federalist George Cabot.
"Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind, let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things," he said in a classic expression of our great tradition of conciliation. "Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. ... We are all Republicans. We are all Federalists."
2. Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural (1865)
The Gettysburg Address is the greatest speech by America's greatest orator, but Lincoln's second inaugural contains some of his most profound thinking.
In this address, which according to Frederick Douglass "sounded more like a sermon than a state paper," Lincoln thinks out loud about the ways and means of Providence in the midst of the bloodletting of the Civil War.
A lesser man might have denounced the Confederates as evildoers, or called God to his side. Instead Lincoln coolly observed the battleground where theology and the military meet: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. ... The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes."