Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

God and Gettysburg

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

God and Gettysburg

Article excerpt

The Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address, and the Constitution of the United States of America - those were the three texts in the blue pamphlet I found on the table in front of me as I took my seat at a conference at Princeton.

On the cover was the logo of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, an influential organization whose boardmembers include former New York Times Supreme Court reporter Linda Greenhouse, controversial Obama judicial nominee Goodwin Liu, former New York governor Mario Cuomo, former solicitors general Drew Days and Walter Dellinger, and former attorney general Janet Reno. The new Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was a speaker at the society's annual conventions in 2005, 2007, and 2008. And inside the pamphlet was a page saying, "The printing of this copy of the U.S. Constitution and of the nation's two other founding texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, was made possible through the generosity of Laurence and Carolyn Tribe."

How nice, I thought. Here is a convenient, pocket-sized version of our fundamental documents, including Lincoln's great oration at Gettysburg on republican government. Although some might question the idea that a speech given more than eighty years after the Declaration qualifies as a founding text, its inclusion seemed to me entirely appropriate. By preserving the Union, albeit at a nearly incalculable cost in lives and suffering, Lincoln completed, in a sense, the American founding. Victory at Gettysburg really did ensure that government "by the people" and "for the people" - republican government - would not "perish from the earth."

I recalled that in sixth grade I was required to memorize the address, and as I held the American Constitution Society's pamphlet in my hands, I wondered whether I could still recite it from memory. So I began, silently reciting: "Four score and seven years ago . . . ," until I reached "the world will little note nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here." Then I drew a blank. So I opened the pamphlet and read the final paragraph:

It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Deeply moving - but, I thought, something isn't right. Did you notice what had been omitted? What's missing is Lincoln's description of the United States as a nation under God. What Lincoln actually said at Gettysburg was: "that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom." The American Constitution Society had omitted Lincoln's reference to the United States as a nation under God from the address he gave at the dedication of the burial ground at Gettysburg.

At the time, staring at the text, I wondered whether it was an innocent, inadvertent error - a typo, perhaps. It seemed more likely, though, that here is the apex of the secularist ideology that has attained a status not unlike that of religious orthodoxy among liberal legal scholars and political activists. Nothing is sacred, as it were - not even the facts of American history, not even the words spoken by Abraham Lincoln at the most solemn ceremony of our nation's history.

When, from 2000 to 2004, the atheist Michael Newdow was challenging in court the inclusion of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, he and his supporters pointed out that the words were not in the original pledge created in the 1920s. They were added by Congress in the 1950s in the midst of the Cold War, in response to a campaign led by the Catholic men's organization the Knights of Columbus. The words were introduced into the pledge to highlight the profound difference between the United States, whose political system is founded on the theistic proposition that all men are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," and the atheistic premises of Soviet Marxism. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.