THE PUBLIC FAITH OF PRESIDENTS
Several days after posting my last blog, Tyranny on the Bench!, a member of the clergy expressed her disappointment with some of my ideas. She was specifically against what she perceived to be "the union" of religion and politics. This is an evil, she emphasized, that is "destructive and conducive to death." As I have thought about her professional station, I am not surprised by the statements in her letter. They are typical of mainline Protestant clergy nowadays. The neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth, even from the grave, continues to cast a lengthy shadow. For the benefit of you nontheological types, Barth protested against all "religion" as man-made artifices, each of which he viewed as a kind of golden calf, to whom idolatrous devotion could and did result in the nightmare of Hilter's Third Reich. Seminaries, sometimes without even realizing it, drum Barth's point-of-view into students as if it were the good confession of faith. Yet the extrapolation of factual lessons from the European experience of public religion becomes a shaky endeavor when imported into the United States.
Religion and politics have always been closely correlated in this country. Can anyone who has ever read a single chapter of American history dispute this fact? American politicians have been forever content to hold, as sociologists Robert Bellah and Phillip Hammond artfully put it, "the strings of religious balloons."
Throughout George Washington's presidency, he continually linked God and country. He contended in his First Inaugural Address that "[e]very step by which [the American people] have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency." The first president, incidentally, often referred to God in terms of "Providence." Was this reference to deity destructive and conducive to death? Well, not according to him, because from the day he entered the presidency until the moment he left it he joined religion and politics.
Before leaving for the Oval Office from Springfield, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln said his last goodbyes to his friends there and referred to the gravity of the task before him. He publicly stated, "Without the assistance of that Divine Being who attended [George Washington], I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail." Would my clergy friend, you think, have advised President-elect Lincoln that any mention of religion in a political context is inappropriate? The idea is so outrageous that it is comical to contemplate.
Theodore Roosevelt, pictured above, once described his presidential responsibilities to Ferdinand Inglehart as follows: "I consider it my greatest joy and glory that, occupying a most exalted position in the nation, I am enabled, simply and sincerely, to preach the practical moralities of the Bible to my fellow country-men." Had pugnacious Teddy tragically overlooked the "totally secular" character of his office? I hardly think so. He had considered the matter and regarded his podium as a pulpit from which to promote, as he phrased it, "the practical moralities of the Bible." Historians do not appear to think it hurt him or the country much. He has a place on Mt. Rushmore.
The former leader of Princeton University, the dapper Woodrow Wilson, sought nothing less than to create a social order based upon biblical principles. He once wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that "civilization cannot survive materially unless it be redeemed spiritually. It can be saved only by becoming permeated with the spirit of Christ. . . ." Horrors! Perhaps he too was dreadfully misguided concerning the relationship that should properly exist between religion and politics. But, more than likely, it is my clergy colleague who is!
It is interesting that Franklin Roosevelt's political policies were likewise guided by the dictates of the Social Gospel. He of course was the one who instituted numerous social welfare programs to mitigate the difficulties of the Great Depression and led the American people in prayer on the eve of the D-Day Invasion. When asked about his philosophy on one occasion, he gingerly responded, "Philosophy? I am a Christian and a Democrat – that's all." I would ask my troubled clergy friend whether she thinks it curious that Roosevelt juxtaposed these two labels -- one religious and the other political.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower led Americans in a prayer that he himself wrote for his First Inaugural. He is considered by virtually all historians to have been one of the nation's most publicly religious chief executives. He proclaimed national days of prayer, invited Billy Graham and other influential clergymen to the White House, and helped create the Foundation for Religious Action. During his administrations the words "under God" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance and Congress made the slogan "In God We Trust" the national motto. But all of this was exceedingly destructive and even conducive to death, right?
Even John F. Kennedy, arguably a thoroughgoing secular progressive except for his routine obeisance to Roman Catholic ritual, eloquently invoked God during his Inaugural Address and once stated at a public gathering, "The guiding principle and prayer of this Nation has been, is now, and shall ever be 'In God We Trust.'"
The cultural fabric of our nation has always mirrored the religious. To attempt to separate religion from public life amounts to disrespecting American culture. I would suggest that clergy and those of similar scruples who are disgruntled with me consider that religious values have incorporated, among other things, a self-critical or prophetic aspect into American culture. Religion in politics gave momentum, for example, to the abolition movement, to the alleviation of poverty during the Great Depression, to the unification of the American people during World War II, and to the facilitation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s. Destructive and conducive to death? I think that is a lopsided assessment, and my use of the term "lopsided" is an attempt (although admittedly strained) to be civil.
So here is a kind-hearted suggestion for citizens who claim that American public faith is a destructive reality, and especially for clergy in that group who undertake to provide guidance to others: Why not look closely at American history, or take something more than a momentary interest in that subject matter before giving others the benefit of your "wisdom"? Then ask yourself, "Do I really wish to strip the religious dimension from the political sphere and, if I should happen to succeed in the effort, what would I substitute for the religious?" Instead of God-talk pervading the public square, perhaps we can continue our journey down the secular path, bathing our minds in tawdry gossip from Hollywood and the waters of comparable cesspools. What an ennobling and liberating option!
July 16, 2008