The American Civil Religion and
the American Constitution
Jeffrey James Poelvoorde
"Let us, if we must, debate the lessons learned at some other time. Today, we simply say with pride: Thank you, dear son, and may God cradle you in his arms." With this simple prayer, President Reagan spoke for the nation as the flag-draped casket of the Unknown Soldier of the Vietnam War lay before him. Before the young soldier's body was lowered into the ground, however, other prayers were uttered. Four military chaplains — a rabbi, a Greek Orthodox priest, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister — pronounced prayers of final committal of their respective faiths. 1 While not shunting aside the critical issues raised in the bitter divisions that the war produced — in fact, he affirmed the necessity of continuing the debate over the meaning of the war — President Reagan nevertheless asked his fellow citizens to touch a stratum of sentiment more fundamental than the opinions contested in the preceding decade. Could the bitterness of the nation's divisions be reduced, perhaps, in the common hope that the young man who sacrificed his life might find eternal rest and in the common appreciation of his sacrifice?
Over a century before, President Lincoln addressed a nation rent by a fundamental political controversy become a bloody war as he assumed the burden of a second term of office. He traced the origins of the struggle up to its current developments but then shifted the tone of his address. 2 In this political sermon, Lincoln went beyond instructing his fellow citizens in their founding principles, especially the principle of a man's equal right to the fruit of his own labor; he taught them about God and His purposes, too. The American Civil
The author would like to acknowledge the editorial assistance and helpful suggestions in the preparation of this essay of his former colleague in the Department of Government at the College of William and Mary, David Dessler.