The Exceptional American

In the United States, we the people cling to the idea that cherished values such as freedom and opportunity are somehow distinctively American. The accidental philosopher Yogi Berra expressed this sentiment beautifully in the late 1950s when he heard that the mayor of Dublin (as in Ireland, not Ohio) was Jewish. “Only in America!” he declared.

In many ways the role that religious faith plays in American politics is exceptional too. Unlike their counterparts in most Western democracies, American presidents continue to routinely invoke the deity in their addresses to the nation. Of course leaders of theocracies do the same, but the U.S. presidential invokers of faith also preside over a government that is religiously neutral. That is a rare juxtaposition.

In the American tradition, though, there’s an exception within the exceptionalism on this count. If you look at religiously tinged oratory by presidents at key times in our history, you’ll see that nearly all of them have tried, subtly or unsubtly, to cast their causes in the singular light of divine favor. All except, notably, Abraham Lincoln.

Instead of assuming the God-is-on-our-side posture, Lincoln proclaims in his Second Inaugural Address near the end of the Civil War, “The Almighty has His own purposes.” Instead of presuming to know the whole truth about the crisis at hand, Lincoln lays claim only to the partial truth that “God gives us to see …”

Lincoln is different.

God Talkers in Chief

I recently had occasion to dig through a well-chosen collection of ten major presidential speeches projecting religious themes, courtesy of Boston College’s Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and Boston College Magazine (which asked me to report on a student-led “God Talk” seminar sponsored by the center). The Boisi staff, including associate director Erik Owens and doctoral candidate in political science Brenna Strauss, selected the items, which are available here.

One set of those texts relates to the theme of “National Crisis and War” and features oratory by FDR, Reagan, Eisenhower, and George W. Bush in addition to Lincoln.

In one entry, Roosevelt delivers a radio message from the White House to a nation still somewhat unalarmed by the Nazi threat. It’s May 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. He warns that the Nazis worship no god other than Hitler and that our freedom of worship is at stake: “What place has religion which preaches the dignity of the human being, of the majesty of the human soul, in a world where moral standards are measured by treachery and bribery and Fifth Columnists? Will our children, too, wander off, goose-stepping in search of new gods?”

Similarly, primal religious emotions are painted on our struggles with foes in other commander-in-chief messages. These include Eisenhower’s First Inaugural Address in 1953 (he sees “the watchfulness of a Divine Providence” over America at the height of the Cold War), Reagan’s 1983 “Evil Empire” speech and Bush’s 2002 State of the Union, which introduced “Axis of Evil” into the lexicon.

Lincoln’s Ineffable God

And then there’s Lincoln, who was born 203 years ago on February 12. He’s the warrior-in-chief against the Confederacy, but there’s no Divine Providence watching preferentially over the Union, in his Second Inaugural (March 4, 1865), which is, as many have described, theologically intense. There’s no casting of political nets around God as Lincoln speaks of North and South:

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.

Lincoln holds out the possibility that North and South alike might continue to pay, and rightly so, for America’s original sin—slavery.

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 bondsman’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.”

He concludes:

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.

Lincoln’s 703-word Second Inaugural is by far the oldest item in Boisi’s “National Crisis and War” packet, and yet, it’s the most modern in its outlook. Theologically, it is freighted with uncertainty, ambiguity, and a sense of moral tragedy (even our deepest convictions cannot capture the truth), but as he probes the divine nature with soberness and humility, Lincoln arrives at a clear-eyed affirmation of religious faith and American purpose. Yes, Lincoln is different. Lincoln is now. …read more

A Little to the Left

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a liberal Protestant stalwart who could spot self-righteousness a mile away—and in himself—recalled visiting his mentor Reinhold Niebuhr in 1966. Niebuhr, who had taught social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was in poor health and spending his last years at his summer home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. As Coffin entered the room, the great theologian smiled from his bed and said, “Ah, Bill, I heard a speech of yours the other day on the radio. You reminded me of my youth—all that humor, conscience, and demagoguery.”

That visit is recounted in Coffin’s 1977 memoir Once to Every Man. The story came to mind as the youngish bands of Occupy protestors hit the streets earlier in the fall, and again in recent weeks as police broke up their encampments in city after city. What’s next for these dauntless activists who have already introduced a new politics in the United States? What will they do with their anger, passion, and conscience? Might there be a little more humor and a tad less demagoguery?

In reflecting on these and other questions, they and the rest of us may find some wisdom in the words of Bill Coffin, who assumed the mantle of leader among left-leaning Protestants after the assassination of his friend, Martin Luther King, and who died in 2006. This year, Dartmouth College Press felicitously reissued Coffin’s 1999 book The Heart is a Little to the Left: Essays on Public Morality. What follows are some nuggets from that slim and veracious volume.

Love and Anger …

• I like St. Augustine’s observation: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

• But in all this talk of anger, there is a caveat to be entered. We have to hate evil, else we’re sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger must always and only measure our love.

• Socrates was mistaken. It’s not the unexamined life that is not worth living; it’s the uncommitted life.

The Bible and Us …

• I read the Bible because the Bible reads me. I see myself reflected in Adam’s excuses, in Saul’s envy of David, in promise-making, promise-breaking Peter.

• [The Bible] is a signpost not a hitching post. It points beyond itself, saying, “Pay attention to God, not me.”

• It is a mistake to look to the Bible to close a discussion; the Bible seeks to open one.

• Christians have to listen to the world as well as to the Word—to science, to history, to what reason and our own experience tell us. We do not honor the higher truth we find in Christ by ignoring truths found elsewhere.

Might and Right …

• True patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s eternal lover’s quarrel with the entire world.

• The United States doesn’t have to lead the world; it has first to join it. Then, with greater humility, it can play a wiser leadership role.

• About the use of force I think we should be ambivalent—the dilemmas are real. All we can say for sure is that while force may be necessary, what is wrong—always wrong—is the desire to use it.

The Spiritual and the Knowable …

• Spirituality means to me living the ordinary life extraordinarily well.

• All of us tend to hold certainty dearer than truth. We want to learn only what we already know; we want to become only what we already are.

• We forget that both the tree of life and the tree of knowledge are deeply rooted in the soil of mystery. The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all. …read more

The Inequality Debate: Channeling Adam Smith and the Bible

Ron Sider

A version of the following piece is scheduled to appear in next week’s edition of The Christian Century.

Which view of economic inequality has greater merit? The one espoused by Adam Smith, the father figure of capitalism? Or the teaching that unfolds from the Bible’s pleadings for justice and righteousness?

It’s a trick question. In fact, these two perspectives are broadly the same. Smith, like the biblical writers, was opposed to gross income inequality. For both, how people are faring relative to others in society is not simply a question of envy. It’s a matter of human dignity and social well-being.

There’s another outlook on inequality that has many adherents. Let’s call it the We Got Stuff school of thought. It says, correctly, that almost everyone in the U.S. has things not even the rich had at one time—microwaves, color televisions. And even our down-and-out have a standard of living that eludes most people in destitute nations. That’s what matters, according to this way of thinking. Widening gaps between rich and poor here in the States are beside the point.

One global spokesperson for the Smith-and-scripture position is Pope Benedict XVI. In Caritas in Veritate (“Charity in Truth”), his 2009 encyclical letter, the pope inveighed against “the scandal of glaring inequalities.” On October 24 of this year, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace highlighted the “urgent need of a true world political authority” to address those disparities within as well as between nations. Its 6,500-word document, “Towards Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority,” called for regulations to curtail the “inequalities and distortions of capitalist development.”

As for the We Got Stuff school, this summer the Heritage Foundation issued Air Conditioning, Cable TV, and an Xbox: What is Poverty in the United States Today? Following political scientist James Q. Wilson, Heritage senior scholars Robert Rector and Rachel Sheffield declared that the poor today live better than the rich did a century ago, and they enjoy conveniences that the middle class couldn’t afford in the recent past.

Using Census Bureau data from 2005, Rector and Sheffield scanned the home of the average family living below the federal poverty line. They found that, for example, “In the kitchen, the household had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave.” Also spotted were washing machines, ceiling fans, cordless phones, and coffee makers. They commented, “Poor families certainly struggle to make ends meet, but in most cases, they are struggling to pay for air conditioning and the cable TV bill as well as to put food on the table. ”

We don’t Live in Botswana

Rector and Sheffield are right that we shouldn’t take our society’s material progress for granted. But the trouble with this line of reasoning is that Americans today don’t live in the 1890s or another bygone era. And they generally don’t reside in the bush of Botswana or some other impoverished land, either.

As is customary for humans, Americans inhabit a particular space and time. They are embedded creatures; they live in communities and need access to the resources that will help them participate fully in those communities. This calls for some basics such as a decent-paying job, health insurance and retirement security. At present it also often means having stuff like cell phones, computers and reliable cars.

The biblical social ethic reflects this sense of particularity. The Jewish prophets and Jesus were not bowled over by the fact that the poor of their times lived large compared to the cavemen. They spoke precisely against the marginalization of economically disadvantaged people within their social contexts.

Ronald J. Sider, a theologian and founder of Evangelicals for Social Action, offers a compelling analysis of this biblical tradition in Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America ( 2007). For example, in the Hebrew Scriptures the poor are cast as on the verge of “falling out of the community,” as Sider puts it. He quotes Leviticus 25:35-36: “If members of your community become poor in that their power slips with you, you shall make them strong … that they may live with you.” That’s Sider’s emphasis on “with you,” which underscores the inescapably relative quality of economic wellness..

Lest a Few Oppress the Many

Behind this ethos is a levelheaded account of human nature. “Precisely because of what scripture tells us about sin and power, biblical people must always oppose great extremes of power,” Sider writes. “In a fallen world, powerful people will almost always take advantage of weak neighbors. And money, especially in a market economy, is power. Therefore, great extremes of poverty and wealth threaten justice and democracy.”

In this connection Sider invokes John Calvin, who, in commenting on the biblical call for debt forgiveness every seven years (during the “sabbatical year”), wrote:

In as much as God had given them the use of the franchise, the best way to preserve their liberty was by maintaining a condition of rough equality [mediocrem statum], lest a few persons of immense wealth oppress the general body. Since, therefore, the rich if they had been permitted constantly to increase their wealth, would have tyrannized over the rest, God put a restraint on immoderate power by means of this law.

Or we could take it instead from Adam Smith and his doctrine of “necessaries.” As Smith explains in The Wealth of Nations, these human needs include not just the rudimentary supports of life but “whatever the customs of the country render it indecent for creditable people, even the lowest order, to be without.” Smith’s examples are linen shirts and leather shoes. While ancient Greeks and Romans could live comfortably without them, custom has rendered each “a necessary of life in England,” he wrote in 1776. “A creditable day-laborer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty….”

Notice that neither Smith nor the Bible argues against the existence of any economic inequality. That’s life, this side of eternity. What they warn against are gaping divides in which people grapple to keep from “falling out of community.” Millions of Americans—the unemployed, the working poor, the uninsured and many others—have been falling for quite some time. That some of them may be doing so with cordless phones in their hands is not much consolation. …read more

About William Bole

William Bole is a writer with a background in both daily journalism and academia. He writes at the three-way intersection of religion, public affairs, and the arts, while often steering into other areas of interest, especially higher education and management. In addition, he teaches nonfiction writing at Boston College, where he serves primarily as director of communications at the Carroll School of Management. … read more

The Life of Meaning

The Life of Meaning

Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World

By Bob Abernethy and William Bole, with a Foreword by Tom Brokaw

Nautilus Book Awards Gold Winner 2008

The Life of Meaning presents conversations with 59 extraordinary people speaking candidly about their own spiritual struggles. Their insights on community, prayer, suffering, religious observance, the choice to live with or without a god, and the meanings that are gleaned from everyday life form an elegant meditation on the desire for something beyond what we can see and measure. Among those profiled are Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, the Dalai Lama, Harold Kushner, Madeleine L’Engle, Studs Terkel, Andrew Greeley, Anne Lamott, Francis Collins, Marianne Williamson, Irving Greenberg, Thomas Lynch, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marilynne Robinson, and William Sloane Coffin. …read more

About TheoPol

Welcome to TheoPol—a writing project that ran for four years. During much of that time, it featured weekly snapshots of interconnections between theology and politics. The questions—as to what these connections are, or should be, and whether there should be any at all—remain current.

In one light, theology and politics should have little to say to each other.

Theology is reflection upon the experience of faith. It is the way we think about the ultimate, whatever our ultimate cares and concerns may be. Politics rightly deals with sublunary questions, like how to tackle a public problem at a particular time, given the constraints and opportunities.

Theology can be cast as a view from the cosmos. In comparison, politics is a street-level transaction.

In another light, almost everyone has ultimate concerns.

Religious adherents and secular souls alike have embedded values, whether these are declared or not. Such values and assumptions will surface in politics, particularly during periods when critical masses are moved by the immaterial dimensions of life, struggle, and conflict. This appears to be one of those times.

TheoPol looks at the phenomenon through a journalistic lens. The interconnections are teased out from current affairs; also highlighted are stories of those who have grappled with the question of where to set the dial between theological conviction and political action.

Of particular interest is the cast of theological characters who coalesced during the civil rights and antiwar campaigns of the 1960s. They were present at the creation of the modern theology-and-politics movement and include iconic figures such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, and Father Daniel Berrigan.

They and many others, of varying theological strains, are counted among the TheoPols.

TheoPol is authored by William Bole.

The Idea Hunter

The Idea Hunter

How to Find the Best Ideas and Make Them Happen

By Andy Boynton and Bill Fischer, with William Bole

The Idea Hunter challenges many assumptions about how great ideas are discovered and who discovers them. Drawing on a plethora of academic research as well as interviews, the authors show that outstanding business ideas do not spring from innate creativity or necessarily from the minds of brilliant people. Rather, breakaway ideas come to those who are in the habit of looking for such ideas—all around them, all the time.

These are the Idea Hunters. Such people do not buy into the starry-eyed notion that the only great idea is a pristinely original one. They know better. They understand that high-value ideas are already out there, waiting to be spotted and then shaped into an innovation. …read more

Forgiveness in International Politics

Forgiveness in International Politics

… an alternative road to peace

The whole notion of forgiveness—as a geopolitical prospect—can seem counterintuitive in an age when people crash planes into skyscrapers. And yet, forgiveness has shown itself to be real enough, and strategically useful in helping to repair relationships that have been long sundered in a number of fractious societies.

Based on a seven-year research and dialogue project conducted at Georgetown University, Forgiveness in International Politics presents case studies of conflict transformation in South Africa, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, and other nations. The book explains how political leaders such as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung helped heal political wounds by engaging in “transactions of forgiveness,” which include gestures of forbearance from revenge and public acknowledgements of wrongdoing.

Such acts and interventions have pointed the way toward a “politics of forgiveness,” according to the authors. …read more

Organized Labor and the Church

Organized Labor and the Church

Reflections of a “Labor Priest”

By George G. Higgins, with William Bole

In this engaging and highly readable work, Msgr. George Higgins—the dean of American Catholic social action—draws on nearly 50 years of direct involvement in the cause of working people and their unions.

Together with his coauthor William Bole, Higgins writes as both eyewitness and seasoned observer. He revisits the significant moments in the 20th century encounter between religion and labor. He introduces us to some of the great labor leaders across the decades: John L. Lewis, Philip Murray, Walter Reuther, George Meany, Cesar Chavez, and others. …read more