Tuesday, July 5, 2011

God of the Nations—Even Ours

As we once again celebrate the birth of our nation and our blood-bought independence, I want to share Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address—perhaps the most theologically reflective address in the history of the U.S. presidency. Other presidents were known to call the nation in prayer during trying times. Franklin Roosevelt even led the nation in prayer on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Bill Clinton was fond of including numerous Bible references in his many speeches. On the campaign trail, Jimmy Carter stirred new interest in Jesus’ phrase “born again.”

Religion is nothing new to American life. Our Founders spoke often of God and Christ and freely quoted Bible verses. It’s no secret that many of our national monuments are inscribed with quotations from the Bible, and that most public oaths are taken with a hand on the Bible and end with “so help me God.” Even as late as the 1950s, America was very public in our God-talk and God-dependence, adopting the phrase “In God We Trust” (which had been on our coinage since 1864) as our national motto in 1956. Two years earlier, in 1954, the phrase “under God” was added to our Pledge of Allegiance. I’m a firm believer in the separation of church and state, but for some reason our Founders and a majority of Americans up through the 1950s never seemed to find that these kinds of things violated either that cherished American principle or the constitution. It’s only been in the last 50 or so years that the tide has been moving in the direction of expunging God from public life as much as possible.

Of course, one problem with these connections of the United States and God is that we will develop a kind of civil religion which is usually both civil and religious but not Christian. You know civil religion when you see it: perfunctory prayers at civic gatherings, the singing of God Bless America, the view that America is God’s chosen nation, that God loves America more than He loves other nations, the idea that American citizenship equates to being a Christian. Civil religion tends to wrap the Bible in the flag and employ the church to make patriots rather than disciples. This is dangerous for the nation and the church, and it's one reason why as a pastor I’ve never been one to lead patriotic services of worship. In fact, I believe the American flag belongs in the foyer, not the sanctuary. I just don’t think the church’s mission is to advance the cause of America. Doing so tends to stir a nationalism that borders on idolatry. And besides, Christian values and American values don’t always coincide. As Christians, we’re certainly to seek the peace of our own nation, but our concern, like God’s, is for all nations.

With all that said, here’s Lincoln’s second inaugural address. (Thank you, Library of Congress.) He gave it on March 4, 1865. Two things happened within a month of the speech: the Civil War finally ended and Lincoln was assassinated. You could say these were his last words. And what words they were! Lincoln had the audacity to speak of God's judgment on our nation. Has any public official ever wrestled with America and her faith in the Christian God more eloquently, boldly, or profoundly than Lincoln did in this address? And in the midst of our contemporary national sins and what seem to be the judgments of God on our nation, could any words be more timely?


At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it--all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether"

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, 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 borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.