(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering. All Rights Reserved.
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The following are quotes from American Presidents. While not a test, I encourage you to think who might have uttered them. I also encourage your thought on why such statements are the currency of Presidential and American political speech.
According to one President, “The same revolutionary beliefs for which our forbears fought are still at issue around the globe – the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” (Who said this?) John F. Kennedy said these words in his Inaugural Address.
Another President said, “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favors.” (Who said this?) George Washington said that.
Finally, one President prayed this prayer in a speech, “Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. We know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph. Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.” (Who said this?) Franklin D. Roosevelt so prayed on June 7, 1944 – the day after the D-Day Normandy landings in Europe.
Such quotes capture over two-hundred years of American Presidential words about God. As much as many people see the marriage of government and religion as contrary to the American ideal of separation of church and state, words invoking the power and protection of God are a part of our national history, vocabulary, and identity. Every US President has publicly called upon God in some form. They have seemingly wrapped God in an American flag and employed God as an implicit benefactor of our nation. Indeed, most of our Presidents have acted as a national Pastor – one who utters our collective prayers, soothes us with assurances of God’s concern in times of distress and embodies all that we supposedly believe. And yet no President has called our nation a theocracy. All have claimed to lead a secular Republic. All at least voiced tolerance for anyone, no matter their faith.
Are Presidential supplications to God mere words intended to pacify the most religious among us? Are they insincere? Are they the stuff of political posturing? Or is there, in many of the thousands of Presidential statements that name God, a different theology that is non-religious – a theology that refers not to a Biblical God but to a concept of god and, most importantly, to eternally human values?
A further question results when we investigate what many Presidents believed to be God – or at least to what they referred to when they named God. For instance, there are many statements by the founders of our nation which invoke the name of God. But most of the founders were Deists who believed in a creative god force of nature that is discerned by reason and observation. This Deist god is not supernatural and performs no miracles or other mythical types of actions. A Deist god allows the universe to function according to physical laws of nature.
Many Pastors and religious leaders have called Deism a false belief and assert that it is, in reality, Atheism. Of the seven men considered the most significant founders of our nation – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Jay, Hamilton, and Madison – only John Jay is said to have been an orthodox Christian. All others spoke of god in Deist terms and almost never referred to Christ or belief in the kind of salvation said to be offered by him. These men rarely attended church, often refused to take communion and avoided religious leaders. Thomas Jefferson was strongly opposed in his bid to become President by many Pastors because he was an avowed Deist. Jefferson did not believe in miracles described in the Bible, he rejected the idea of the Trinity, and he said the virgin birth is a hocus-pocus myth. He re-wrote large portions of the Bible by deleting verses that alluded to anything supernatural or miraculous. But, as President and almost until the day he died, he often wrote of God and the Providence of God. That kind of paradox – to speak of God but not exhibit much religiosity is true of many Presidents.
Despite this paradox, many contemporary Christians mistakenly use the words of Washington, Jefferson and others to state that America was founded on explicitly Christian beliefs despite the fact that the constitution never uses the words God, Bible, Christian, Christ, Creator or Divine. Christians claim the same with almost all other Presidents as a way to insist that America is a Christian nation – even though almost no President has ever uttered in his seemingly religious statements the words “Christ” or “Christian.” And yet, intonations about God by Presidents sit uneasy in our minds. Where is the wall that allegedly divides church from state? Where is the acknowledgement that many Americans have not and do not believe in a personal, supernatural god?
I assert, however, that while some Presidents opportunistically have used the name of god in order to cloak themselves in the mantle of a Christian God, especially in years since Jimmy Carter freely discussed his Born Again Christianity, most Presidents have spoken a much different form of theology – a Civic theology or Civil Religion of universal ideals. God, in this sense, is not the god of the Bible. In American civil religion, god is an embodiment of justice, mercy and equality. God is the natural force behind universal human rights, the force that proclaims the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. God, according to this non-religious civic theology, is the intangible impulse behind American ideals embodied in our secular national scriptures – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address.
And that speaks to my purpose in this September message series of “Seeking a Different Theology”. When considering religion, we have too often divided into opposing sides. We understand god through either a prism of belief or of unbelief. Our theology is either Atheist or religiously theistic. Instead, my September message series intends to ask the question: is there a different way, a way found someplace in the grey and ill-defined middle, a way to find some small turf of common ground on which both Atheist and theist can unite? Might we, as seekers after truth, find some balance between a belief in the power of science and reason, and the mysterious forces at work in the universe that deal with meaning, transcendence, and universal values?
I maintain that American Civil Religion does just that. As such, can we as spiritually open minded people get past the seemingly offensive religious words used by most Presidents and find, instead, a broader and truly universal celebration of human rights? I turn to Abraham Lincoln as perhaps the best expositor of a national non-religious religion. He has been called the father of American Civil Religion – one based not on traditional theological belief in an all powerful God but, instead, in a reverence for national virtues like equality, freedom and justice. Lincoln, as reported by both his wife and his best friend William Herndon, was deeply spiritual but not a religious Christian. As President, he eloquently equated god with the values we hold dear as Americans. In his mind, god and the ethic of freedom were one and the same.
Lincoln’s use of God’s name in his speeches were far from being evangelical or even nationalistic. He never claimed that God had chosen America as his or her exceptional example of a moral nation. Rather, Lincoln claimed that our values, and most importantly our protection of freedom, are ones derived from a universal power that he generically called God. America is worth saving and honoring because it aspires to follow nature’s god that grants us the universal rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. America was created to insure such rights for its citizens and it is therefore a nation worth protecting because of its adherence to those eternal ethics. America is not good because it was specially anointed by a Christian God. America is good because of its stated values.
In his Gettysburg Address, considered by many historians as the single greatest American speech and one that epitomizes American civil theology, Lincoln famously began, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Two short paragraphs later, Lincoln concluded, “We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
It is important to note that two written versions of Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863 do not contain the words “under god”. Eyewitness accounts also do not claim he spoke those words. At a later date, however, Lincoln signed and dated a copy which does contain that phrase and it is that version which has become the official one. Nevertheless, with or without the naming of God, the speech borrowed heavily from the cadence and phrasing of the Bible. His famous words “four score and seven years ago” echo those found in the Psalms: “three score and ten years ago.” The words “brought forth” are those used in the Gospel of Luke to describe Mary’s birth of Jesus. And his final words “shall not perish” are the same as those reported in Luke to have been spoken by Jesus at his crucifixion.
According to Robert Bellah, who wrote a landmark article on American civil religion in 1968, the Gettysburg Address is a perfect example of our national non-religious religion. Lincoln described an America conceived not by god or God’s intentions, but rather by a purely human intention to promote universal ideals which by themselves were godly. America began because of a proposition that humans are born both free and equal. The actions of the founding fathers, the efforts of Americans since 1776, the sacrifice of Union soldiers on the fields of Gettysburg – all these were done, according to Lincoln, so that those propositions of freedom and equality would not end. Americans therefore bow in reverence not to a Supreme Being but rather to supreme ideas. That is our civil religion.
Lincoln beautifully framed the American story around a subtle analogy with the birth, life and death of Jesus. That symbolism and use of Jesus themes further defines both his beliefs and those of an American civic theology. Americans, Lincoln believed, are united not by a religion that worships Christ. We are united by a civic religion focused on the concept of a god of ideas – on a set of values similar to those of Jesus, ones we hold as self-evident, eternal and even mystical. That is an American religion of universal principles, Lincoln implicitly asserted, of Washington, Jefferson and all other great activists in American history. I assert that is the civic religion of other Presidential reformers like Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Kennedy, Johnson, Reagan, Obama and, indeed, of all Americans who believe in freedom, equality and social justice.
It is interesting to further note that Lincoln’s other famous Gettysburg phrase was borrowed from a well-known Unitarian minister of the time, Theodore Parker, who said in a sermon that upholding the ideals of liberty and equality demanded a democratic government “of all the people, by all the people, for all the people – a government after the principles of eternal justice…” The sermon likely caught Lincoln’s attention because it so well described his personal faith in a god found in the universe as a whole, a god force that embodies eternally sacred values. Lincoln was nothing if not a great politician – in the Gettysburg Address he turned pious, evangelical and often hypocritical religiosity on its head – he used its phrases and its cadences to speak of an inclusive civic theology that united instead of divided.
In that regard, modern Christian fundamentalists and my own experience with some of them have nevertheless caused me to cynically discount anything that sounds traditionally religious. When I hear a politician invoke the name of God, I’m often turned off. Just a few weeks ago, President Obama asked that God both bless a murdered journalist and America itself. They were soothing words designed to comfort our shocked sensibilities. I cannot know what motivated Obama or any other President to utter those words – “may God bless America.” But I find in my cynicism a jaded thinking that is angry not at the words but at their often exploitative use.
By offering today a different theology, much like I offered last week in the Pantheism of Albert Einstein, I call both myself and you to a less cynical perspective on American intonations of god. Much like what Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln believed about god, I subscribe to a divine force of goodness and beauty that operates and animates the world. Universal values and ethics that were true ten thousand years ago, are true today and will be true ten thousand years from now – these are foundational American beliefs that are not unique to us but rather ones we aspire to uphold.
As such, we do not need to flinch with disapproval every time we hear the name of God invoked to bless America or, indeed, to bless any of us. Nor do I believe we should discredit the words of many past Presidents and our nation’s founders who spoke the name of God. I believe they mostly referred not to a Christian or any other religiously specific god. Nor did many of them refer to a god who favored America. Rather, I believe our American theology seeks to honor, like we do, the eternal god force of goodness – the god force that blesses any government founded on liberty and equality, the god force that compels a government to protect persons denied such rights, the god force that asks of nations that they insure the basics of happiness for their citizens. That’s a civic non-religious religion I am proud to proclaim and one I try to follow.