The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

In the autumn of 2004, I answered my office phone and for a few seconds thought someone was playing a joke on me. Until it dawned on me that I really was listening to someone with that unmistakable BBC radio accent. Long story short, a producer from the BBC wanted to know if I would write and present a 30-minute radio program for them that traced religion and politics in America from the nation’s founding fathers and the fourth of July to today.

It’s a strange sensation, I’ll tell you, beavering away on a writing project, hidden out in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, and suddenly have the BBC World Service offer you a freelance job. “We got your name and number from one of your friends here in England,” the producer said. She laid out the idea, I plied her with many questions, and we reached an agreement. Over the next 2-3 weeks I wrote the script and we communicated frequently to polish a final draft. The program aired successfully on BBC radio, October 31, 2004.

I had occasion recently to read the text of that program, which I haven’t done for years. Today, fourteen years later, most of it strikes me as very relevant still (one bit in particular does not).

Before the program aired, two aspects of the editing process fascinated me. One was to see what bits of text the BBC omitted from my final draft in order to find time to include parts of well-known patriotic songs, readings, and interesting personal anecdotes from others, which I had no control over.

I wish I could reproduce those inclusions for you, here, but the program is no longer on the Web. Instead, I thought you might like to see the entire unedited text. I’ve noted the places the BBC omitted by placing brackets at the start and end of that material, and I added the song titles and other bits. Also, toward the end of the text I included some pretty bold statements, and I was pleasantly surprised that the BBC left those in the program.

START OF BBC RADIO TEXT

“God bless America.”

These three short words bring together religion and a nation – and all the controversy and paradox, and yes blessings, that the invocation reveals about America’s pluralistic experiment.

It’s not unusual to hear these three words on the lips of American politicians, especially during the closing remarks of important Presidential speeches.

Invoking God finds deep historical roots in America dating back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, and even before that to the Pilgrims and to the Puritans, who first settled in close knit Christian colonies along the New England coast in the early seventeenth century.

Even today millions of Americans genuinely believe that the nation should be blessed by God, and we’ll be hearing from some of them later. Many may even sing the famous Irving Berlin song God Bless America, written in 1938, at large sporting events.

Song – God Bless America

I never thought much about that song or its implications while growing up in Michigan in the more liberal North.

It was only after moving to the South, 15 years ago, where I settled into the beautiful rolling foothills of the Smoky Mountains, then I saw just how seriously
many people take the words “God bless America.” I had moved into the heart of what is called the Bible Belt, a large area of the country where Protestant fundamentalism is widely practiced.

Every Fourth of July, for instance–or Independence Day, as people call it–our nation celebrates one of its most cherished documents, the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson in June 1776.

Reading from – The Declaration of Independence

We, the Representatives of the United States of America … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States [and] that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British crown …. And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honour.

In the church that my wife and I attend, Sunday services every Fourth of July come alive with political fervor.

Inside the packed sanctuary you’ll see a large American flag with its bold red, white, and blue colors prominently displayed.

You’ll hear the pastor preaching a rousing sermon about why America is a Christian nation, a chosen nation.

[And the choir and congregation will ignore religious hymns that morning in order to sing patriotic songs like God Bless America or America the Beautiful.]

Song – America the Beautiful

There’s no doubt that religion and politics are in our bones here in the States.

[When the prominent French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville arrived America in the early 19th century to write his classic book, Democracy in America, he wrote that the first thing that struck him in the United States was its religious atmosphere. De Tocqueville marveled not only at the number of religious denominations but also their mutual toleration.]

pause
God permeates much of everyday American life today.

On Sundays we pass the plate and on Mondays we pass the buck. And in both transactions God slips through our fingers – the slogan “In God We Trust” engraved on our money.

[And speaking of money, America’s deep religious beliefs have made it a very giving nation, both philanthropically and charitably, at home and abroad.]

And whenever students stand in their classrooms, hand over heart, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, God gets a mention even in our secular, state school system.

Reading – Pledge of Allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

BBC added a comment from a Southern Baptist pastor from Dallas and a comment from a “humanist.

[It was in 1954 that Congress passed a law inserting the two words “under God” into the Pledge, and reasonable people have disagreed about that clause ever since.Two years ago, for instance, a self-professed California atheist got a Federal court to have the words “under God” removed from the Pledge. But just recently the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that verdict.]

pause
The religious conviction that America is “a chosen nation” dates back to the Pilgrims and the Puritans, who were fleeing religious and political persecution in England and Europe.

Many of their early documents reveal their deep faith in God, such as the 1620 Mayflower Compact, named after a ship in which many Pilgrims had sailed from Plymouth England to the New World.

Reading from – The Mayflower Compact

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia; do by these presents, solemnly and mutually in the presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politic.

Winthrop ship The ArabellaIn a famous 1630 speech, Massachusetts governor John Winthrop stood on the deck of the gun-ship, the Arabella, in which he had sailed from England, and invoked blessings on the new colonies that were straight from chapter 30 of the book of Deuteronomy.

As Winthrop articulated his Christian vision for the New World, he declared that the colonies should be “a city upon a hill” — a direct reference to Jesus’ statement in St. Matthew’s Gospel that you are the light of the world, and that a city set upon a hill cannot be hid.

Reading from – John Winthrop’s 1630 speech

The Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us as his own people and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, [so that we shall see much more of his wisdom, power, goodness, and truth then formerly we have been acquainted with]…. The God of Israel … shall make us a praise and a glory, that men shall say of succeeding plantations: the Lord make it like that of New England: for we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us.

Many of our politicians today, such as the late President Ronald Reagan, have appealed to Winthrop’s ideas.

At least twice in his speeches, Reagan included Winthrop’s phrase about “a city set on a hill” – once during his campaign for a second term; and later during his farewell address to the nation.

Did this mean that every early Christian leader believed that they were founding God’s chosen nation? Not at all.

Puritan leaders like Roger Williams warned that no nation since the coming of Christ has been uniquely God’s chosen nation. And this is a position that continues to be held by many prominent Christians today.

Nevertheless, not long after the nation had formed, the religious conviction that America was divinely chosen gave rise to Manifest Destiny, the powerful 19th century political doctrine that the United States had the right and the duty to explore and to expand itself throughout North America.

And in those more militant times, as today, Americans could be inspired by the song The Battle Hymn of the Republic, a rather frightening song about God wielding his swift sword against his enemies.

Song – The Battle Hymn of the Republic

In quite a different spirit today, the U.S. Congress acknowledged God’s special relationship with America shortly after the attacks on 9/11. On October 23, 2001, Congress passed a Resolution that permits a national day of reconciliation to occur every year.

The Resolution states that “the two Houses of Congress shall assemble [once a year] . . . to humbly seek the blessing of Providence for forgiveness, reconciliation, and charity for all people of the United States.”

This tradition dates far back in U.S. history, such as to President Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Day address in 1863. In a very moving appeal during the nation’s tragic Civil War, which was being fought between the North and the South, Lincoln declared bluntly that the nation had “forgotten God.”

The nation, said Lincoln, who had been made gaunt by the War, had become “intoxicated with unbroken success.” It had “become too self-sufficient.” And therefore we ought to “humble ourselves,” and “confess our national sins,” and “pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

Times haven’t always been pretty when it comes to religion in America. The Civil War was being fought chiefly over the slavery issue, and religious faith dictated two opposing views. Christians in the industrial North opposed slavery. In the agricultural South, with its huge plantations, Christians wanted to see slavery extended.

The suffering slaves themselves drew from powerful redemptive Christian imagery forged upon the sorrow of their chains.

Dozens of so-called Negro spirituals arose out of the slave’s pain and oppression, including songs like There Is a Balm in Gilead, and the soulful Swing Low Sweet Chariot, which was taken from Psalm 68:17: “The Chariots of God are tens of thousands.”

Song – Swing Low Sweet Chariot

BBC added a “testimony” from an Assembly of God church member and from a Catholic woman.

The relationship of religion to government in America has sustained one of the nation’s longest-standing and most heated controversies: the meaning of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Ratified in 1791, the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or the free exercise thereof.”

[The great controversy has always been about how to interpret that. Since 1802, it has been known as the “separation of church and state,” a principle that has been derived from a letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association by Thomas Jefferson, our third President. In that letter, President Jefferson — a religious man who was not a Christian but a Deist — wrote that the First Amendment built “a wall of separation between church and state.”]

To many Americans today, this means that religion and politics should have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But to many other Americans, that is going way too far.

Battles over the meaning are played out regularly in our courts, where, for instance, rulings have been handed down to remove Christmas nativity scenes from government buildings.

[One of the most far-reaching decisions occurred in 1962, when the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the saying of prayers in our state schools.]

But the battles are also played out between friends and neighbors. I used to have quite animated conversations about religion and politics across the fence line with my neighbor, Don, a silver-haired, straight-talking man who had retired to the Smoky Mountains from Florida.

Whenever I happened catch him cutting his lawn, Don would stop and wave me over to the fence line, where, as neighbors do, we would catch up on things.

Knowing I was a public Christian, within minutes Don would be baiting me about America’s religious right and its national political arms, the Moral Majority, and later, the Christian Coalition.

“What business do they have, always sticking their nose into politics?” Don would say.

Well, I took his point. But it must be said that government needs some sort of moral base, otherwise there’s going to be chaos or anarchy. The Pilgrims and Puritans understood this, but I don’t think that many non-religious Americans today think much about it.

But both liberal and conservative Christians today think about it. Big time. Both sides of the religious divide spend huge amounts of time, money, and effort trying to implement their version of Puritan moralism in American public life. [They also believe that it’s essential to elect Christian politicians to key offices, whether locally, regionally, or nationally.] Their efforts, however, may not be producing the intended moral effect on the nation.

After all, we’ve had almost 30 straight years of Presidents claiming to be “born again” Christians, ever since Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, popularized that phrase in 1976.

And polling research indicates that close to fifty percent of the population now attend church on Sundays.

The great irony is that after three decades of Christian Presidents and widespread church attendance, America still continues its slow general trend into materialism and moral decline.

I think there are many reasons for this.

Many churchgoers still cling to a 19th century pietism – a private faith that has little public relevance. [And many Christian politicians often fail to put forward viable policies that make sense to the nonbelievers in their constituencies.] Also, Christian activism often finds itself opposed by parts of society, whether rightly or wrongly.

[In their book The Search for Christian America, scholars Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden write that when Christianity is closely linked to a society, it can transform aspects of that society; but “on any large scale or in the long run such a transformation will be severely limited by other forces at the base of a society…, [especially] anti-Christian forces.”]

Clearly not everyone would “Amen” the sentiments of Walt Whitman, one of American’s great 19th century poets, when he wrote a poem called “Prayer of Columbus.”

Reading from – Walt Whitman’s Prayer of Columbus

All my emprises have been filled with Thee,
My speculations, plans, begun and carried on in thoughts of Thee,
Sailing the deep or journeying the land for Thee;
Intentions, purports, aspirations mine, leaving results to Thee.

O I am sure they really came from Thee,
The urge, the ardor, the unconquerable will,
The potent, felt, interior command, stronger than words,
A message from the Heavens whispering to me even in sleep,
These sped me on.

Song – America, America

BBC added a Catholic man’s “testimony,” a doctor from Dallas who was a former rock musician.

Many Americans like religion as a touchstone, but they resist having it enforced politically.

Nowhere has public resistance to religious activism been more successful than in the case of abortion, which was legalized by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973. Even after more than 30 years of tireless widespread religious activism, the abortion decision has never been overturned.

[Christians have had much better success when working one-on-one with Americans on this emotional issue.]

pause
With all the Christian influence in the nation, however, do people of other faiths, such as Jews and Muslims, and even those who claim not to be religious, get a fair shake?

I think that most of the time they do.

A very tangible blessing of America’s pluralistic experiment lies not only in the U.S.
Constitution but also in the Declaration of Independence, which states clearly that “all men are created equal,” and “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

This means that “equal rights” for all takes precedent over any one faith. Rights, therefore, come first. And every American citizen has them. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from. Should people’s rights be violated, as U.S. history reveals, the courts are brought in to settle the abuses.

pause
I’m sure that to people looking in from the outside, it must seem like the whole nation is one big religious hothouse, a society where religion is continually shoved in your face.

I think that would be an inaccurate picture of America.

For me, even as a Christian, I think that one of the great things about the American experiment is you can live here quite happily without being accosted by religion.

Many people live here for a long time and are not fussed about religion at all, even as I lived during one 10-year stretch of my life, when I was a New Age neopagan. Then in July, 1976, coincidentally during the month that America was wildly celebrating its two-hundredth anniversary, I was living alone like a hermit in California. That month I had a dramatic and unexpected encounter with the risen Jesus, which has always reminded me of Paul the apostle’s startling experience when he was knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus.

The experience immediately changed the direction of my life completely. I suppose you could say that I now find what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity” to be both personally essential and a public good.

Of course, nonbelievers won’t see it like that, but neither will they feel awkward seeing so many of their neighbors driving off to church on Sundays, although they might joke about seeing religious stickers on their neighbors cars, stickers that may say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” or, “I’m too blessed to be depressed.”

I think that Americans of any faith, and people of no faith, have all learned to live here with grace toward each other – as we spend everyday in each other’s company, whether at work, at play, or across the fence line.

It’s certainly not perfect. We’ve got a long ways to go. But for the most part, we get along — even during a heated political season like the current campaign for President.

And that, it seems to me, is part of God’s grace blessing America.

Song – Amazing Grace
END

©2018 by Charles Strohmer

Images courtesy Creative Commons.

A note from Charles: For more of the perspectives that Waging Wisdom seeks to present, try following the blog for a while to see if you like it. You can always “unfollow” anytime. Just click here, find the “Follow” button in the right margin, enter your email address, and click “Follow.” You will receive a very short email notice when I post a new article. And, hey, if you like this stuff, tell a friend! Thank you.

4 thoughts on “The Fourth of July: Religion and Politics in America

  1. I really liked this piece. Why? I’m not telling you. ok, I will (but you knew that). First, content was good, insightful and I believe properly directed at the audience. On point, consistent, etc. But, I think my favorite part was the evolution of your writing style, or maybe more the style change to suit the audience. It is more, mmmm… personal than a normal intellectual piece. Good morphing sir!

    Like

    • Always good to hear your thoughts, here, Jim. I know you’re always covered up, so thank you for taking time to comment. Yes, “audience” is key. It was drilled into my head decades ago as an up-and-coming writer to “know what audience you want to reach” with a certain project. If we don’t, we will sound like clanging brass (to use a King Jimmy image). For the BBC radio piece, I was very fortunate. Having England as my home-away-from-home, gave me and the BBC producer (whom I did not know until then) a solid a priori cultural connection that otherwise would have been missing. I think this made it fairly easy on both of us to reach to an agreement on a way ahead for the 30 minute program. In an email to me after the program aired, she said that the Beeb were “thankful for my endurance and perseverance [because] we were asking you to do a really difficult thing – and you carried it off well.” I was pleased to hear that, because it was a bit nerve-racking at times for all of us! Cheers.

      Like

      • Very interesting weaving of facts. I’m sure I already knew most of the history but you presented scenario after scenario that kept me reading to the very last words. I am setting aside some time to go back through some prior articles that I missed.
        Thanks for making me smile, Charlie! Marie

        Like

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