Religious Faith and Public Life: The Voices of America

by | Jul 7, 2019

It’s been quite a week in our nation’s capital, with a lot of anxiety leading up to the July 4th celebrations, and endless conversation about President Trump’s decision to highlight the four branches of the military with tanks and flyovers on the National Mall and to give a speech of his own. While extreme in comparison to celebrations of memory, it was a predictable spectacle. July 4th is an unapologetically patriotic holiday, and it always serves to highlight what we love most about our country–and we don’t all love the same things–even as we pray, in the words of our beloved anthem America, the Beautiful, that God mend our every flaw.

One of the many things I love about our country is the relationship between religious faith and public life in this country, for all its contradictions and distortions. In the United States, religious freedom is a sacred trust, and our highest spiritual aspirations are what have inspired us over the centuries to face our flaws and by the grace of God amend them.

My offering today is a mediation on the relationship between faith and public life, beginning with words read aloud in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776: 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness…We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States…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 Honor.”

Apparently just after the Declaration had been signed, Benjamin Rush, a Philadelphia physician and one of the signers, overhead a conversation between Benjamin Harrison of Virginia and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts: “I shall have a great advantage over you, Mr. Gerry,” said Harrison, “when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of yours you will dance in the air for an hour or two before you are dead.” No event in American history that, in retrospect, has seemed so inevitable was at the time more unlikely and doomed to failure than the American Revolution itself.  (Quoted in The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, by Joseph J. Ellis, Vintage Books Edition, 2002, p.5)

Fast forward to another sweltering summer day in Philadelphia, in late June, 1787. The war against Britain is over. The colonies are free and independent, but their relationship to each other is, to put it kindly, weak and poorly defined. The delegates to the Constitutional Convention have been meeting for a month, a month of deep distrust and bitter quarreling. The elder statesman, Benjamin Franklin, who has not yet spoken at this Convention, rises, at last, to address the delegates:

“The small progress we have made after four or five weeks’ close attention and continual reasoning with each other, our sentiments different on almost every question…is, methinks, a melancholy proof of the imperfection of human understanding. We indeed seem to feel our own want of political wisdom, since we have been running all about in search of it. We have gone back to ancient history for models of government, and we have viewed modern states all around Europe, but find none of their constitutions suitable to our circumstances. In this situation of this assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark to find political truth… how has it happened that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understanding? In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for divine protection. Our prayers were heard and they were graciously answered… I have lived a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this truth, that God governs in the affairs of men… We have been assured in the sacred writings that ‘except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this, and I also believe that without God’s incurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building not better than the builders of Babel…”

Franklin ended his speech with a motion to hold prayers every morning that the delegation was in session, a motion that was almost unanimously defeated. But his point was made, and heard, that their efforts could not be successful without mutual sacrifice and a summoning of their best and most creative efforts. (Quote in The American Soul: Rediscovering the Wisdom of the Founders, by Jacob Needleman, Penguin Press, 2002, pp.63-64)

What they finally produced, the Constitution for the United States, is our nation’s most significant and enduring political document. “We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution…”

We owe its creation and success to the diverse personalities and ideologies present in one room all through that long, hot summer. Not one was completely satisfied with their final product. But in the end they trusted the wisdom of the collective; they were willing to compromise and institutionalize the inevitability of political disagreement. It helped that these men, political allies and adversaries alike, all knew each other well. They had shared meals together, sat together at countless meetings, and corresponded with each other on private as well as public matters. Some of them, when they weren’t working on forming the governance of the country, were forming the governance of the Episcopal Church, which had its beginnings in the same revolutionary, democratic spirit that formed our nation.

It is also true, painfully so, that our nation’s founding generation deliberately deferred for future generations the most divisive issue between them—that of slavery, so clearly incompatible with the principles of the freedom and equality. They all knew it. Some agonized over it more than others; most believed, rightly or wrongly, that the nation would not survive the debate, should it be taken up at its founding.  Could they have forseen how their decision would cost untold millions of people, both who endured the lash of slavery and those who died 100 years later in the effort to end it? 

In March of 1865, as President Abraham Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, he didn’t know if the nation would survive the war that slavery had wrought, and he invokes the will of God in a particularly haunting way:

“Fellow countrymen: .. . On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending war. All dreaded it—all sought to avert it…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 nation, 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… Yet neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration of which it has already attained…

“Each looked for an easier triumph… 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 man dare 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… If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God he 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 bondman’s two hundred fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn from 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 all together.’ 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 a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

The nation did survive, even without Lincoln to guide it. Still another war raged on, however, for America was not able to live at peace with the nations it encountered on the soil it claimed as its own. Surely the genocide of the native peoples of this land is as great a stain on our nation as that of the slavery, but it is a sin largely to us, for we do not know what our ancestors destroyed. In 1909, Chief Plenty Coup of the Crown Nation conferred with his tribal council on achieving peace between all the great tribes of the United States. At the age of 63 years, Chief Plenty Coup had witnessed the forced removal of Native Americans from their homes, the undermining of treaties by the US government, and the steady encroachment of white settlers on Native American land. But as the Crow Nation prepared for a meeting with the chiefs of the other Indian nations, Chief Plenty Coup knew that the end for his people had all but come. It was time to build a legacy of peace between the Crows and the other nations.

“The ground on which we stand is sacred ground. It is the dust and blood of our ancestors. On these plains the Great White Father in Washington sent his soldiers with long knives and rifles to slay the Indian… A few more passing suns will see us here no more, and our dust and bones will mingle with these same prairies. I see as in a vision the dying speak of our council fires, the ashes cold and white. I see no longer the curling smoke rising from our lodge poles. I hear no longer the songs of the women as they prepare the meal. The antelope have gone; the buffalo wallows are empty. The white man’s medicine is stronger than ours; his iron horse rushes over the buffalo trail. He talks to us through his ‘whispering spirit.’ We are like birds with a broken wing.

Before our red brothers pass on to the happy hunting round, let us bury the tomahawk. Let us break our arrows. Let us wash off our war paint in the river. I will send my runners to the lodges of the Blackfeet in the north, to the fiery desert of the Apaches in the south. I will send them east to the lodges of the Sioux, warriors who have met us in many a hard battle. I will have outliers build smoke signals on the hills, calling the chiefs of all the tribes together, that we may meet here as brothers and friends in one great last council, that we may eat our bread and meat together, and smoke the council pipe, and say farewell as brothers, never to meet again.”  (From In Our Own Words: Extraordinary Speeches of the American Century, Robert Torricelli and Andrew Carroll, editors, Kodansha International, 1999, p.25)

Twenty chiefs accepted Plenty Coup’s invitation, and in September 1909, the Last Great Indian Council was held in the valley of Little Big Horn in Montana. All agreed to terms of peace. 

These are but a few of the great voices of our America. I could go on, to read the words of those who continued the struggle for justice African Americans during the long era of Jim Crow, lynchings, and the Great Migration; those who fought for women’s suffrage and worker’s rights, those who resisted the Nazis, welcomed immigrants, and worked for Civil Rights, those who considered it their patriotic duty to question the foreign policy of our government even as they were accused of betrayal and even treason. We have much in our history to make us both proud and ashamed, to both humble and inspire us. Never should we be persuaded by those too hardened and cynical to see our nation’s goodness; never should we be seduced by those who cannot see, much less repent of our sins. As with each person here, our country is a combination of all that defines human existence, sin alongside saintliness, with a good deal of mediocrity and quiet heroism all around.

I close with excerpts from the sermon that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached the night before he was killed. Against the advice of many, King had traveled to Memphis to stand in solidarity with the city’s sanitation workers who were on strike for better pay and working conditions. The last part of his sermon is well known, for he seems to know that death is near: God has allowed him to go the mountaintop, he said, and there he saw the Promised Land. “I may not get there with you,” he said, “but I am here to tell you that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.” 

The first part of the sermon is equally compelling. He begins with a statement of heart-breaking candor: 

“I guess one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable. We are commanded to do that. And so we find ourselves in so many instances having to face the fact that our dreams are not fulfilled. Life is a continual story of shattered dreams… Well, that is the story of life. And the thing that makes me happy is that I can hear a voice crying through the vista of time, saying, ‘It may not come today or it may not come tomorrow but it’s good that it is within your heart. It’s good that you are trying. You may not see it. The dream may not be fulfilled, but it’s just good that you have a desire to bring it into reality.’” 

He also gave an interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan that epitomizes how King lived his life, from those early days in Montgomery right to the end. He began by contrasting the actions of the priest and the Levite who passed the wounded man on the roadside with that of the Samaritan who stopped and offered help. “I think those men were afraid. And so the first question the priest and Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ That’s the question before you tonight. Not, ‘If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job, or my normal duties as a pastor?’ The question is not, ‘If I stop to help people in need, what will happen to me?’ The question is ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ That’s the question.”  (The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, p.363)

For those of us called to follow Jesus, in our moment of this country’s history, it’s our question, too.