Under God

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Generally speaking, it’s not a good idea to deliver a sermon with the express intention of sending a message to the President of the United States.

Then again, most preachers don’t have the chief executive sitting in their sanctuary on a Sunday morning.

On February 7, 1954, Rev. George MacPherson Docherty – the Scottish-born pastor of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C. – knew that President Dwight D. Eisenhower would be sitting in the pew that had been occupied almost a century earlier by Abraham Lincoln.  Fourteen previous US presidents had sat in “Lincoln’s Pew” on the first Sunday of February, which was popularly known as Lincoln Sunday.  Docherty decided he would use his sermon to lobby for a change in the Pledge of Allegiance. 

Why, asked the preacher, was there no reference to God in the simple affirmation that was spoken every day by millions of American schoolchildren? 

America’s Cold War with the Soviet Union was heating up.  In order to distinguish ourselves from the state-sanctioned atheism of the USSR, shouldn’t the words “under God” be added to the Pledge?  That way we could shout to the world that trusting God was central to the American way of life. 

Eisenhower was moved.  Before the end of that chilly Sunday, he resolved to pursue Docherty’s suggestion.

The authenticity of Ike’s spirituality has long intrigued historians.  He famously said to reporters, “Our government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”  So-called “Eisenhower Faith” is sometimes depicted as a watered-down, lowest common denominator belief in whatever

But there are good reasons for believing that Ike was sincere.  He remains the only president to be baptized while living in the White House.  He personally composed a prayer that he read at his own inauguration, and launched the tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast. 

He also presided over a nation that was experiencing a major post-war revival in civil religion. 

His proposal of modifying the Pledge of Allegiance received a groundswell of bipartisan support.  Eight Democrats and eight Republicans (think about that for a moment) jointly sponsored a bill to add the words “under God.”  Four months later the legislation reached his desk and Eisenhower signed it into law. 

Congress was also flooded with thousands of letters – from schools, labor unions, and religious groups of all kinds – asking that the words “In God We Trust” appear on postage stamps and legal tender.  Ike supported that initiative, too.  It soon became law.

The religiously-themed stamps were a major hit.  During the first 24 hours they were available, more than a million were sold.  Every envelope and parcel would spread the word that America was a God-fearing, God-loving nation.  Two years later, in the summer of 1956, “In God We Trust” was officially declared to be the national motto. 

Some citizens were uncomfortable with these developments.  But for most people, it seemed right to consider patriotism and piety to be one and the same.    

Those words of faith are still on our coins, paper currency, state flags, and various license plates. 

We still say “under God” every time we recite the Pledge.

But the religious and social consensus that clamored for those words almost 70 years ago has long since vanished.  The jarring realities of Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Watergate, the fall of communism, the rise of terrorism, corporate malfeasance, endless Middle Eastern wars, and church leadership scandals – not to mention the radical individualism of our post-modern age, which columnist David Brooks calls The Big Me – have swept away the notion that Americans can agree on anything.

For the first generation after World War II, belief in God in the face of an international threat was a source of national unity.

Americans also experienced a sense of togetherness after the 9/11 terror attacks.  But that didn’t last long. 

Apart from crisis or disaster, is there anything that can bring us together in the days ahead?

The distinguished church consultant Lyle Schaller was well acquainted with the kinds of things that drive people of faith apart – from quibbles about Bible versions and praise choruses to knock-down-drag-outs concerning pastoral authority and the sacraments.  But Schaller knew there will always be two things that can bring otherwise contentious people into the same room.

The first is prayer.  

When we get down on our knees before the God who is bigger than even our biggest disagreements, our eyes can be opened to the richness of what we already share.    

The second is service.

We can pound nails together.  And feed hungry people together.  And clean up the environment together.  There is so much to do that we will never run out of opportunities to serve the common good together. 

Faith-words may be nice. 

But they mean next to nothing unless we embrace the hard work required to actually live as one nation under God.