“God in America”
In his second Inaugural Address, with the Civil War nearly won, Abraham
Lincoln was expected to rejoice in righteous celebration. Instead he noted
that both the North and South “read the same Bible and pray to the same
God. Each invokes his aid against the other. It may seem strange that any
man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing bread from the
sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not, that we be not judged,”
The crowd was silent, until
halfway through when blacks began to chant, after each sentence, “Bless the
Lord.” They sensed this was a sacred moment, and it was.
Lincoln closed by urging, “With malice
towards none, with charity for all…let us strive on to finish the work we
are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have
bourne the battle, and for his widow and orphans; to do all which may
achieve and cherish a lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
Yet six weeks later, on Good Friday, he
Frederick Douglas, America’s most
prominent black abolitionist, declared “A dreadful disaster has befallen our
nation. It is a national calamity, a personal and national calamity.”
Historians say that the nation quickly
began to interpret his death as an atonement for the sins of the nation over
slavery, the last casualty of the Civil War. “The grave cannot hold him,
and he is risen,” said one. “He was the well-beloved son of God.”
Lincoln’s words have endured, chiseled
in marble at the Lincoln Memorial.
These dramatic events were the
highlight of the second two-hour PBS Special, “God in America,” broadcast
three evenings this week. Its exploration of the connections and tensions
between religion and politics over the centuries is vivid, from the Pilgrims
on. John Winthrop, the first governor of Massachusetts, preached a sermon
at sea before landing in which he said “We will be as a city on a hill,” a
phrase later picked up by Ronald Reagan’s call for a “shining city on a
However, Winthrop vision was so sharply
challenged theologically by Anne Hutchinson, that he banished her from the
Evangelicals were thrilled when William
Jennings Bryan was nominated as Democratic candidate for President in 1896,
1900 and 1908, but he lost each time. A gifted speaker, his last moment on
the stage was at the Scopes Trial in 1926 where he argued against Darwin’s
theory of evolution, in favor of the Biblical account. He was countered by
atheist Charles Darrow, a confrontation that captured national attention.
Darrow appeared to be losing
until he put Bryan on the stand, asking him about Genesis’ account of the
creation of the world in six days. “Does it mean a 24-hour day?” he asked.
Bryan replied, “It might have continued for millions of years,” astounding
his supporters. Darrow was elated, and was the clear winner of the debate.
Bryan died a week later.
Evangelicals withdrew from the
public stage for decades into a subculture. Jerry Falwell, for example,
resisted saying anything about politics for years, saying his job was “to
preach the Gospel.” Even when abortion was legalized by the Supreme Court
in 1973, Falwell said it was an issue for Catholics.
However Francis Schaffer
persuaded him to take a public stand. PBS showed Falwell telling his church
in 1978 that abortion was about the “right of the unborn to life, who, by
the hundreds of thousands, are being murdered in these United States of
America.” He founded the Moral Majority, met with Rep. Jack Kemp, Sen. Bob
Dole and later, Ronald Reagan when he was seeking the Republican
Reagan successfully courted
Falwell and the “Religious Right,” enlisting them in his campaigns, though
ironically, Reagan was not personally religious. After his 1980 election,
Falwell said, “I give him an A+ on everything.” Ultimately, however, Reagan
accomplished few evangelical goals, such as Constitutional Amendments to
restore prayer to public schools or to overturn Roe v. Wade. Falwell
disbanded the Moral Majority and returned to preach the Gospel.
Evangelical hopes rose again
with George W. Bush, who called himself an evangelical. He did expand AIDS
funding in Africa saving many lives and did appoint solid conservatives to
the Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. But no major evangelical
goals were achieved.
Barack Obama courted a
significant segment of evangelicals and Catholics in his election, but
quickly dashed their hopes as he supported gay rights and expanded abortion
The PBS series was skillful
in reporting the interweaving of faith and politics over centuries.