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The events of September 11 have given rise to religious rhetoric in the public square the likes of which we have not seen in a long time. With Congressmen singing “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps and President Bush appealing to prayer, God, or the Bible in almost every speech, even the American Civil Liberties Union is observing a prolonged moment of silence. But what should Christians make of this political use of religion?

Back in 1992, many evangelicals grumbled when Bill Clinton called for a “new covenant” between American citizens and their government. But few complained after Bush spoke from the National Cathedral pulpit to comfort the American people and rouse them “to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” Have Christians allowed partisanship to creep into their public theology?

Addressing the question of a “Christian” politics, C. S. Lewis wrote, “Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: We are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or—a Judge.” Should Christians invoke God's favor for political ends? That depends on the role that religion should play in a self-governing regime. Three principles should inform this discussion.

First, government may appeal to the religious sentiment of the citizenry for support of the regime because one of the principal duties of government is to protect religious freedom. George Washington wrote to the United Baptist Churches in Virginia that “every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.” He was even more direct in his letter to the General Assembly of Presbyterian Churches: “While all men within our territories are protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of their consciences, it is rationally to be expected from them in return, that they will be emulous of evincing the sanctity of their professions by the innocence of their lives and the beneficence of their actions.”

Free Exercise and Political Prudence

In his Farewell Address, Washington called religion and morality the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens” and cautioned against those who would undermine the connection between “religious principle,” “national morality,” and “political prosperity.” The father of our country saw no problem with using the bully pulpit to encourage public piety for the sake of governmental stability. But what does the Bible say?

According to Romans 13:1, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Paul writes that beyond the threat of punishment one's conscience obliges Christians to submit to the authorities. In his First Letter to Timothy, Paul adds that Christians should pray for their rulers, “that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” The hope is that God, “who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth,” will add to his church through the testimony of an obedient and praying church (1 Tim. 2:1–3). A political appeal to the religious sentiments of the citizenry, therefore, finds support in the Scriptures.

Discussion of the tension between religion and politics usually centers on the threat religion poses to the state. But religion's support of the limited purposes of government leads to a second principle: The state should respect religion enough not to tread on its turf. Calvinists call this principle sphere sovereignty; Roman Catholics call it subsidiarity. And one way this political respect for, and accommodation of, religion can work is to allow religious expression in civic affairs.

While not inconsistent with the promotion of a civil religion that bolsters law-abidingness, this principle's chief aim is to allow citizens to exercise their faith as citizens without hindrance from the government. Moreover, this principle allows the state to facilitate the religious sentiments of the people. Examples include presidential proclamations of a national day of thanksgiving or prayer, congressional chaplains, and printing currency with the inscription, “In God We Trust.”

A third principle offers a more a cautionary note: Religious expression in the public square, whether as part of a civil religion or political accommodation of the faith of the citizenry, is not a risk-free proposition. Simply put, religious fanaticism can lead to political fanaticism, whereby the counsels of moderation and compromise by prudent officeholders are sacrificed to the demands of utopian moralists.

Richard John Neuhaus once defined democracy as “the necessary expression of humility in which all persons and institutions are held accountable to transcendent purpose imperfectly discerned.” And as the Federalist argued from the outset, political debates find “wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society.” Because no citizen speaks with infallible logic on any public matter, moderation in public debate as well as compromise guided by principle become the operative guideposts for political decision making.

But the American proof text for applying religion to political affairs is Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Ironically, Lincoln used religion to demonstrate religion's failure to resolve a political crisis. We hasten to add, though, that religion as a political tool was not alone in its inability to avert the Civil War. Lincoln devoted most of his First Inaugural Address—a far more lengthy speech than his Second Inaugural Address—to a strictly rational argument in an effort to dissuade Southern dissenters from leaving the Union. Needless to say, Lincoln's presidential logic failed to prevent the firing upon Fort Sumter and the commencement of the war.

In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln pointed out that although the American people read the same Bible and prayed to the same God, they still drew opposite conclusions about God's opinion of secession and slavery. This did not keep Lincoln from expressing his incredulity about those who would “dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces.” But, quoting Matthew 7:1, he hastened to counsel the nation to “judge not that we be not judged.”

Trying to discern the meaning of a civil war that neither side wanted at first—a war more costly than predicted and producing an emancipation no one expected—Lincoln concluded, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” At the National Cathedral, Bush also noted that “God's signs are not always the ones we look for. We learn in tragedy that his purposes are not always our own.” God's judgments remain inscrutable this side of the veil. Nevertheless, his general will and intentions for his creation—especially for those who believe in him—remain fairly clear. Accordingly, Lincoln exhorted a pious but divided nation to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Lincoln once called Americans the “almost chosen people” and their form of government “the last best hope of earth.” This echoed the sentiments of Washington, who spoke at length in his First Inaugural Address about “providential aid” in establishing the American republic and the “pious gratitude” owed by Americans: “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men, more than the people of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.” At the very least, the idea of American exceptionalism has a long and distinguished pedigree.

A Divine Mandate for Justice and Right

Psalm 33:12 reads: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance.” This is no boast, for the rest of the psalm declares the simple but all-important truth that God offers his presence and supply to any and all who put their trust in him. Historically, the people of Israel were chosen by God to be a blessing unto the nations. Since the coming of Christ, and his rule over the church, the nations have witnessed a new and growing people of God, drawn from all tongues and tribes, and called to be a blessing to all people by teaching them about the present and future rule of the Lord Jesus Christ.

With e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) as its motto and the equal rights of human beings as its operative principle, America looks like a political analog to this revelatory picture of God's relationship to his church. G. K. Chesterton even called America “a nation with the soul of a church.” Needless to say, the United States is not a church. Thus, any special attention received from the Almighty follows because a predominantly Christian populace exercises its civic responsibility, as with the other nations of the world, “to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right” (1 Pet. 2:14).

Earlier this year, the National Day of Prayer adopted the theme “One Nation Under God.” Added in 1954 to the Pledge of Allegiance, this phrase reminds us that our politics are just as much a part of our spiritual life as any other earthly activity or institution. It speaks of God's providence over our nation, which creates a responsibility in us to act as a people, both nation and church, under God's judgment as well as his blessing. In short, we must govern ourselves according to principles of justice and right and not merely majority rule or numerical might.

From his inauguration address to his statements following the tragedy of September 11, President Bush has beckoned the nation to “a power larger than ourselves.” And the song “God Bless America” has become a second national anthem as Americans seek comfort, strength, guidance, and resolve in their efforts to rebuild their lives in a terrorist-shaken world. This is quite a turn of events for a country long known for its veneration of the self-made man.

The United States became a nation, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions” and “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” And while July 4 is justly celebrated as the nation's Independence Day, Americans will do well to acknowledge their national dependence each Thanksgiving Day.

God be praised.