America, when you think about it, is itself an act of faith. Even before Lexington and Concord, the idea of a promised land far from blood-soaked Europe was forged in the fire of two great revolutions: the Reformation and the Enlightenment.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, settlers, many of them Puritans or free-thinkers, risked their lives on the stormy Atlantic to live in a place where freedom and faith were not incompatible but intertwined. It was John Kerry’s ancestor John Winthrop who, preaching a sermon aboard a ship making the journey from fear to freedom in 1630, first evoked America as “a city on a hill.” And the dance between church and state, between the pulpit and the presidency, has been delicate since those first moments.
And so God was with us in the beginning, and is with us still. The abolition of slavery grew out of Northern churches; Lincoln redefined America at Gettysburg, calling us “one nation, under God.” On D-Day 1944, the hinge of the 20th century, Franklin Roosevelt’s only public utterance was to read a prayer of his own composition, one he had drafted using the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a book whose cadences trace their roots back to the grandeur of Elizabethan England, the age of Shakespeare and Milton.
The central text of modern liberalism— President Kennedy’s 1961 Inaugural Address— is explicitly theological, quoting Isaiah, evoking Augustine, echoing the Sermon on the Mount, and linking all of us to the company of heaven. He said, “Let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
And so, for a time, it became. Carrying the torch of freedom through the gloom of the Cold War, we won; heeding, at long last, the cries of ministers like Martin Luther King (“And righteousness shall come down like waters, and justice as a mighty stream”) and of statesmen like Lyndon Johnson (“We shall overcome”) we destroyed Jim Crow. After Dallas and Vietnam and Watergate, we turned to a Southern Sunday School teacher, Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian who wore his faith on his sleeve-and seemed all the more genuine, and decent, for it.
In our more recent, more bitterly divisive age, the question of faith and public life has become ever more explosive.
Liberals hated it when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union “an evil empire,” even though it was; conservatives recoiled when Bill Clinton asked for Christian mercy and forgiveness for his personal transgressions, even though it is a Christian’s duty to be merciful and to forgive.
After the attacks of September 11, President Bush spoke of good versus evil, which worried some people that America was embarking on a holy war of its own under an avowedly evangelical Christian president.
But sometimes our enemy is evil, and sometimes we are arrayed on the side of the forces of light.
At such times and in such trials, however, it is probably wisest to walk humbly before God and let the facts make the point rather than preaching it too hard.
Therein lies an important lesson. At its core, America’s public religion is strongest when it speaks softly, most influential when it is the least prideful, and most convincing when it is the least coercive. We are not, and should never become, a theocracy; we are, instead, a democracy of believers—and crucial to a democracy of believers is fighting to the death to protect the right of anyone to choose not to believe.
Crusades are for the insecure, literalism for the weak. Faith that is forced on others is not faith—conviction does not come from compulsion.
The legacy of Winthrop and Lincoln, of Kennedy and Reagan, is that faith matters, deeply, but freedom matters even more. “Be strong and of good courage,” the Lord says in the Book of Joshua. “Be not frightened, neither be dismayed, for the Lord thy God is with you wherever you go.”
Even to the end—but, God-willing, there will be no end to America’s story— a story that began with a sermon at sea.
From the Navy Hymn, a choir sings: “O Trinity of love and power, our brethren’s shield in danger’s hour, from rock and tempest, fire and foe, protect them wheresoever they go, that evermore may rise to Thee glad hymns of praise from land and sea.”