The Flutters of Religion in Affairs of State If America Now Defied the Founders and Set Up an Established Church, Would Its Head Be the Collector of Internal Revenue?

By McCarthy, Eugene J. | The Christian Science Monitor, January 9, 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Flutters of Religion in Affairs of State If America Now Defied the Founders and Set Up an Established Church, Would Its Head Be the Collector of Internal Revenue?


McCarthy, Eugene J., The Christian Science Monitor


Oswald Spengler, in "The Decline of the West," observes that, although the number of nominal estates in any society may be more than two, there are really only two estates - the civil and the religious - that are relevant. According to Spengler, when one of these two fundamental estates loses power, that power is assumed by the other, or by some other institution or passing estate, or one carrying another name. In our time, as religious power has been scattered and weakened, religious functions and powers have been picked up by the press, by civil powers, by corporations in a kind of feudal relationship, and by the military.

The American Colonial practice was for the most part one that accepted, in the English tradition, an established religion. Congregationalists prevailed in most of New England, and Anglicans of the Episcopal variety in the Southern colonies: Catholics and Methodists and other sects had not yet become religious forces requiring political attention.

The men who wrote the Constitution faced this choice: Either establish a church or provide for religious toleration. They chose the way of nonestablishment. This seemed a good choice, and it worked well throughout the 19th century. A mild kind of civil religion was accepted. Politicians, some of whom were believers, some who thought religion to be useful, even necessary for the support of democracy, accepted this relationship. Early documents of the new republic emphasized strong religious commitment; for example, the Declaration of Independence and George Washington's inaugural address. The God of early politics was somewhat impersonal and detached, described in rather general terms as "The Creator," "The Invisible," "The Almighty Being," etc. With the passage of time, relationships between God and the politicians became more personal, manifest in exchange of endorsements - the politicians usually endorsing the Divine and His works and claiming a responsive endorsement of the politicians' works by the Divinity. Lincoln's second inaugural address, by a scholar's count, had 14 references to God and four quotations from the Scriptures (Genesis, the Psalms, and Matthew). Approximately 100 years later, President Lyndon Johnson, speaking about the civil rights law of 1965, declared: "It is rather our duty to do His Divine will. But I cannot help believing that He truly understands and that He really favors the undertaking we begin here tonight." Johnson, like Lincoln, kept the line between church and state reasonably clear, if not the line between religion and politics. The significant blending of the two took place in the Eisenhower campaigns and administrations. The first Eisenhower campaign was presented under the banner of a crusade, although the cross was a little vague. One of the crusaders, a member of Congress, charged that the previous administration had tried to "make a settlement with the devil Communism, instead of spurning him as Christ did when tempted." The inaugural parade of 1953 featured what was called "God's float," a late entry. The pledge of allegiance to the flag was changed during the Eisenhower administration to include the words, "under God." The postmaster general issued a stamp bearing the motto, "In God We Trust," and the same slogan was prescribed for United States money, scarcely a vote of confidence in the secretary of the treasury. Vague belief, strongly held The Kennedy campaign and administration had a different religious thrust. Whereas Ike had included as part of his inaugural proceedings a prayer he had himself composed, the Kennedy inaugural was sustained by prayers by Archbishop (later Cardinal) Cushing, who was followed by Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Church, by John Barclay, a Protestant minister, and then by Rabbi Nelson Glueck. Whereas, as William Miller wrote in his book "Piety Along the Potomac," Eisenhower had a religion that was vague but strongly held to, the Kennedy religion was strong but vaguely held to.

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