God in America
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American Scripture

by Hillary Kaell and Marilyn Mellowes

"Civil religion is the idea that … there is this religion of the country… It has saints like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln and maybe Martin Luther King. And it has scriptures like the Gettysburg Address and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. And it has holy days like the Fourth of July." -- Stephen Prothero

Throughout their history, Americans have produced a body of work -- sermons and speeches, books and declarations -- that have can be considered part of "American Scripture." Spanning nearly 400 years, these voices from the past create a rich and complex fugue: They protest injustice; they argue founding principles; they summon citizens to action and they urge them to live up to the nation's loftiest ideals. These documents are wildly variegated in their tone, style, rhetoric, subject matter and point of view. At times they were created specifically to address believers; just as often they are intended for a secular audience. Together they converge to create a canon whose authority is not derived from enforced orthodoxy, but from the authenticity conferred by Americans of many faith traditions -- as well as nonbelievers -- who instinctively recognize in these words a decidedly American spirit, one characterized by a restless seeking, insistent questioning and a call to realize the inspiring principles set forth by the our country's earliest leaders. Here are examples of some of the key documents of American Scripture.

Source: Library of Congress
John Winthrop
1630John Winthrop: A Model of Christian Charity

Bracing themselves for the long journey across the Atlantic, the Puritans heeded the words of their leader, John Winthrop. A lawyer, not a minister, Winthrop nevertheless delivered a speech that has been called the greatest American sermon of all time. It is premised on the idea that the Puritans are a people with a special covenant with God; if they obey God's laws, they will fulfill their duty and be protected. Winthrop calls upon the Puritans to realize a vision of a "city on a hill" -- a society beloved by God that would serve as an example that all of Europe would one day emulate. Winthrop's metaphor has resonated throughout American history; throughout his political career Ronald Reagan would refer to America as "a shining city on a hill."

Signing of the Declaration of Independence
1776The Declaration of Independence

Written with passionate conviction and an abiding belief in freedom, Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence makes a scathing indictment of the abuses inflicted by the king of Great Britain and justifies the decision of the 13 colonies to sever their ties. Throughout the document, Jefferson refers to divine power and presence with words familiar to his audience -- "Nature's God," the "laws of nature," the "Creator," "Divine Providence," and the "Supreme Judge of the World." Jefferson was not a conventional Christian, but he shared a widespread belief that God's will was made evident in nature, including the nature of human beings. Thus Jefferson reassures his readers that God's will is made manifest in the actions of the American people.

Source: The White House Historical Association
Thomas Jefferson
1802Thomas Jefferson: Letter to the Danbury Baptists

In the early 19th century, the Congregational Church remained the established church in the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts, meaning the church was the officially sanctioned state religion and was supported with state tax money. But the states' growing Baptist populations wanted assurance that their rights would be protected. In Connecticut, the Baptist community in the town of Danbury wrote to President Thomas Jefferson to congratulate him on his election and to seek his support in their struggle for religious liberty. Jefferson saw the letter as an opportunity to enunciate important principles, educate the public and to diffuse the widespread impression that he was unsympathetic to religion. In his letter, he famously invokes the metaphor of the "wall of separation" of church and state. Jefferson's referred to the separation of institutions, but he did not separate religion and public life. His metaphor lay largely ignored until 1947, when it was revived by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

Source: Library of Congress
Ralph Waldo Emerson
1838Ralph Waldo Emerson: Divinity School Address

A former Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson created an uproar with his lecture to the graduating class at the Harvard Divinity School. He begins with a lyrical ode to the bounty of summer: "The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay." Having lulled his audience with pleasing images, he proceeds to offer a withering indictment of Christianity: "In this point of view we become very sensible of the first defect of historical Christianity. Historical Christianity has fallen into the error that corrupts all attempts to communicate religion. As it appears to us, and as it has appeared for ages, it is not the doctrine of the soul, but an exaggeration of the personal, the positive, the ritual. It has dwelt, it dwells, with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus." Discarding traditional dogma and biblical miracles, Emerson then sets forth his own spiritual vision and summons his audience of fledgling pastors to shed old ways and achieve new enlightenment. His comments at Harvard created a firestorm; he was not invited back to the Divinity School for 30 years.

Emerson was a leading figure in the American-born Transcendentalist movement; Transcendentalists believed each individual must make his own decisions about God, the human race and the world. Emerson himself believed God was revealed through nature.

1852Frederick Douglass: The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro

On Independence Day, Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave and ardent abolitionist, delivered a speech in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. Casting himself as an outsider -- "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?" -- Douglass gives a scorching indictment of the Christian nation that harbors slavery and condones its abuses. Slavery is a national sin, and Americans are sacrilegious and hypocritical to tolerate it. Like a prophet of ancient Israel, Douglass predicts that the United States will end up like Babylon -- destroyed by the wrath of God.

Source: Library of Congress
Lincoln Being Swarn in
1865Abraham Lincoln: Second Inaugural Address

On March 4, 1865, Abraham Lincoln once again made the trip from the White House to the Capitol to deliver his inaugural address. Weeks of wet weather had turned Pennsylvania Avenue into a sea of mud and standing water, yet thousands gathered. Journalist Noah Brooks reported that just as Lincoln stood up to his speak, "A roar of applause shook the air, and again and again repeated, finally died away on the outer fringe of the throng, like a sweeping wave upon the shore. Just at that moment the sun, which had been obscured all day, burst forth in its unclouded meridian splendor, and flooded the spectacle with glory and with light."

Lincoln proceeded to deliver a profound theological reflection on the war, one which sought to fathom the haunting question of the war's ultimate meaning. Drawing on the "Mediation on Divine Will," which he had privately composed in September 1862, Lincoln revealed the evolution of his own thinking about the purpose of the conflict, the nature of Providence -- that God controlled events and punished those who sinned -- and the fate of humanity. The address is unique in American presidential rhetoric. Instead of a victor's gloat, Lincoln appealed to his countrymen for peace and compassion. Within weeks Lincoln was shot on Good Friday; he died the day before Easter Sunday.

old Rabbi Wise
1885The Pittsburgh Platform

In 1885, Reform Jews, led by Rabbi Kaufman Kohler, gathered in Pittsburgh to pass a declaration known as the Pittsburgh Platform. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, a founder of Reform Judaism in America, presided over the meeting. Reform Judaism started in Germany to adapt the ancient rules of the faith in order that Jewish people might be considered loyal citizens of modern nation-states; it sought to downplay Jewish difference in dress, diet and worship, doing away with beliefs about the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem and even disavowing the new Zionist movement.

Remarkable for its ecumenical and progressive spirit, the platform addressed the three main challenges of modern thought. On the question of the Bible, the platform stated that scripture reflected "the primitive ideas of its own age." The platform also declared that scientific advances such as evolution were not at odds with the doctrines of Judaism. On the question of other religions, the Platform referred to Judaism as "the highest conception of the God-idea," but it also acknowledged every other religion as "an attempt to grasp the Infinite." Christianity and Islam were praised for aiding "in the spreading of monotheistic and moral truth." On the sensitive question of the Jewish homeland, Reform Jews concluded that the return was not literal, but eschatological.

Source: Library of Congress
elizabeth cady stanton
1898Elizabeth Cady Stanton: The Women's Bible

Outraged at being denied the right to speak at an abolitionist conference, activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton turned her prodigious energies to the cause of women's rights. As she grew more radical, she viewed the Bible as a key weapon in the subjugation of women and authored a new Bible, the Women's Bible. In her introduction, Stanton argues that the Bible "degrades women from Genesis to Revelation," and keeps women in their "divinely ordained sphere." Ministers and clergy also conspire to keep women in their place and women -- so accustomed to a male-dominated status quo -- provide "the chief support of the church and clergy." Stanton's Bible stirred controversy, including strong objections from her colleagues within the women's movement. She had little patience for her critics: "Come, come my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving."

Source: Georgetown College
P Walter Rauschenbusch
1907Walter Rauschenbusch: Christianity and the Social Crisis

A young minister assigned to a tiny church on the edge of Hell's Kitchen in New York, Walter Rauschenbush witnessed the array of ills that beset the city -- poverty, crime, drunkenness, oppression of workers and gross disparities in wealth. He saw these ills as social sins that demanded a new social order, one that lived up to the vision of Jesus and his early followers. He believed advances in knowledge -- including biblical criticism, the scholarship that questioned the Bible's authorship -- made it possible to recover this vision and to move toward the creation of a more just society. Christians had a duty to roll up their sleeves, get to work, and help to bring about God's kingdom on Earth. Rauschenbush set forth his theology in Christianity and the Social Crisis (1907) and A Theology for the Social Gospel (1917). "The Kingdom is for each of us the supreme task and the supreme gift of God," he wrote. "By accepting it as a task, we experience it as a gift. By labouring for it we enter into the joy and peace of the Kingdom as our divine fatherland and habitation."

eisnehower Ministers
1954"Under God" and The Pledge of Allegiance

In the religious resurgence that followed World War II, America faced off against its former ally, the Soviet Union, in the Cold War against "godless communism." Religion became increasingly prominent in the nation's public life. As historians Paul Harvey and Philip Goff have noted, the "high priest" of America's civil religion was Dwight D. Eisenhower, former commander of the allied forces in Europe. Eisenhower himself was not baptized until after his election (he became a Presbyterian), but he urged his countrymen to attend church without specifying any particular denomination. "Democracy," he explained, "is the political expression of a deeply felt religion." At the urging of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic lay group, Eisenhower added the words "Under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance. This attempt to endow the nation with sacred meaning is nothing new; it's historical antecedents stretch back to the Puritans. But the marriage of religion and politics during the Eisenhower era gave renewed impetus to the tendency to equate American goals with God's purpose.

1960John F. Kennedy: "I Believe in an America Where the Separation of Church and State is Absolute"

The first Catholic presidential nominee since Al Smith's 1928 campaign, John F. Kennedy found himself facing Americans' long-standing suspicion of Catholicism that reached back to the colonial era. Many were convinced that if elected, Kennedy would receive instructions from the Vatican. Kennedy decided to confront this suspicion and prejudice head-on. He sought permission to speak before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a largely Baptist audience. In his speech, Kennedy laid out his interpretation of a strict separation of church and state: "I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute -- where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote…" Kennedy reminded his listeners of his own record of public service, in the military and in Congress, and he went on summon a vision of America as a nation founded on the principles of religious liberty and equal justice. He also pointed out that Catholics died in World War II and at the Alamo, inserting Catholics into the public history of American sacrifice for freedom.

Letter From Birmingham
1963Martin Luther King Jr.: Letter from Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister and leader of the civil rights movement, was arrested for participating in nonviolent protest in the city of Birmingham, Ala. While in jail, King wrote a response to a public letter published by eight local white clergymen, who criticized him as an outside agitator who should wait for the law to address the problems of desegregation. King believed the pursuit of justice was not only the will of God, but an essential part of Americans' heritage. His response became an American classic -- compelling in its logic, passionate in its embrace of freedom, elegant in its language and unassailable in its appeal for equality and justice. To the charge that he was an extremist, King asked: "Was not Jesus an extremist in love? … Was not Amos an extremist for justice? … Was not Paul an extremist for the Gospel of Jesus Christ?" King then turned to his disappointment with the white churches with their lofty spires, their massive buildings: "Over and over again I have found myself asking: 'What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?'" King's powerful call to conscience was reprinted in newspapers and journals; he never received a reply from his critics.

Source: Library of Congress
Malcolm X
1963Malcolm X: "The Chickens Come Home to Roost"

While serving time in a Massachusetts jail, Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little, converted to the Nation of Islam (NOI) and became one of the movement's leading spokesmen. Led by Elijah Muhammad, the NOI was an American-born movement that took some principles and theology from traditional Islam, but attracted thousands of adherents with its message of black power, economic autonomy and its own account of the evils perpetrated by whites upon blacks. In this speech, Malcolm chastises white America for sinning against African Americans; he denounces Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders; he calls for complete separation from whites, either in this country or abroad; and he predicts that disaster will befall those who fail to heed the divine messages of Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm refers to the biblical story of Exodus -- a common theme for African Americans, where the U.S. is the land of bondage.

President Reagan
1983Ronald Reagan: "Evil Empire" speech

Elected to the presidency in 1980 with their overwhelming support, Ronald Reagan addressed the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983. The speech became known for labeling the Soviet Union as the "evil empire," but most of the address is concerned with the place of religion and morality in public life, and reflected Reagan's fundamentally optimistic view of America's role in the world as a beacon of salvation to other nations. The speech is shot through with religiously-inflected language, as well as quotes from the Founding Fathers and the prophets Amos and Isaiah. Reagan covers a lot of ground: He links secularism to government-sponsored birth control and abortion; he applauds a constitutional amendment to restore prayer in public schools; he nods briefly to the success of the civil rights movement and proceeds to discuss the nuclear freeze -- all in religious language in which American history is cloaked in a sacred mantle and the cause of freedom is its sacred mission. Alluding to the "evil empire" toward the end of the speech, Reagan makes an unmistakable reference to the Book of Revelation with its powerful and disturbing depiction of a final apocalyptic confrontation between good and evil -- a biblical reference that his audience would readily understand.

President Obama
2006Barack Obama: "A Call to Renewal"

On June 28, 2006, then-U.S. senator Barack Obama delivered an address at a conference convened by progressive evangelical Jim Wallis. Obama announced that he planned to address one of the most contentious issues in America: the relationship between religion and politics -- a debate that he acknowledged had occupied the nation for the last 30 years. He began by noting that Americans are a religious people, that for many people "sheer busyness" is not enough. They yearn for something more. He spoke of his own spiritual journey that took him from a secular childhood to a willing embrace of the Christian faith at a predominately African American church, where the tradition of social reform held powerful appeal. Then he got down to business. Turning to secularists and progressives, he said, "Secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square." The great reformers in American history -- Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Dorothy Day -- were motivated by faith and used religious language to argue for their cause. Turning to the religious right, he reminded them that the great principle of the separation of church and state had allowed religion to flourish; he also argued that religiously inspired policies must be argued in universal terms, "subject to argument, amenable to reason." Obama then warned of the dangers of secularism and went on to acknowledge that America had become a religiously pluralistic nation -- a theme that he would take up two-and-a-half years later in his own inaugural address in which he described America as "a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers."

Hillary Kaell completed her Ph.D. in American Studies from Harvard University and will start as an assistant professor of religion at Concordia University (Montreal) in 2011. Marilyn Mellowes is the series producer of God in America.


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Published October 11, 2010

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