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October 14, 2010

Column #1,520

“God in America”

By Mike McManus

            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,” paraphrasing Scripture.

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 was assassinated.   

                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 hill.”

                However, Winthrop vision was so sharply challenged theologically by Anne Hutchinson, that he banished her from the colony.

                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 nomination. 

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 funding.

The PBS series was  skillful in reporting  the interweaving of faith and politics over centuries.


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