Sunday, July 04, 2010

In God We Trust

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Proverbs 14:34).

Have you ever noticed that our national anthem is a question? The first stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner (which is the only one we normally ever hear) ends with the question, “O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” It is a question that deserves an answer.

Francis Scott Key sought to answer that question he posed over the course of three more stanzas in his poem “Defence of Fort McHenry,” which was later adopted as our national anthem in 1931. It was not certain that the flag would continue to fly as Key wrote it during the bombardment of that fort in the War of 1812.

Key argued that it must continue to fly because of the values it represents. It is for those that we fight. Chief among these is our faith—a national belief in God and a confidence that the dominion of the Almighty ensures our liberties.

For our founders, no one is truly free if God is not on his throne. For if God is not on his throne, a tyrant will take his place or the state itself will try to become a god. How often we have seen that occur in history! It is no wonder that for the first version of an American national seal, based on the image of Israel crossing the Red Sea, Benjamin Franklin suggested this motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

In his first inaugural address, President George Washington noted, “We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained.” Putting God first is one of our greatest national values. More than anything else, our faith helps ensure our freedom.

Our national anthem concludes with this stanza: “O! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand/ Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!/ Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land/ Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation./ Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,/ And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust.’/ And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!” The United States officially adopted the motto “In God We Trust” by law in 1956.

What does it mean for us to assert with confidence, “In God We Trust”? Does it mean that we think that at the last minute, God will come and bail us out of any war or failure or catastrophe? Do you think that in heaven their motto is “In America We Trust”? And yet, with all the blessings we’ve received, how could we not say that God has placed a great amount of trust in America?

Jesus once said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” And so I ask, Have we been worthy of it? Have we been worthy of all that God has entrusted to us? If not, what are we going to do about it?

It is interesting that our motto became In God We Trust, because from the beginning, we’ve had a great distrust of ourselves. Our form of government is built around a system of checks and balances, which is intentionally designed to keep power away from different people. Neither the executive, legislative, or judicial branch of government should be allowed to dominate because power corrupts. Human nature what it is, we all need a watchdog. The president watches the congress, who watch the courts, and the press watches all.

We began with the idea that power doesn’t belong to kings or nobility. But the founders weren’t all that trusting of the rabble either. Thus we ended up with things like the electoral college, and state legislatures originally chose our senators.

Although we value the separation of church and state, we should be mindful of the role that faith has played in forming our nation. On July 28, 1787, the 81-year-old delegate Benjamin Franklin addressed the president of the Constitutional Convention, General George Washington, saying “God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? Without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service.”

Since that time, the Senate and the House of Representatives have continuously appointed clergy to lead them in prayer each day they are in session. The first chaplain elected by the Senate in 1789 was Samuel Provoost, the Episcopal bishop of New York. In 1790, Bp William White, of Pennsylvania, was elected. 10 years later, he was followed by Bp Thomas John Claggett of Maryland. Eight out of the first nine Senate chaplains were Episcopalians, as was our first president and many since. We Episcopalians in the United States have had an influence that far exceeds our numbers. Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes it may not be. But if we are entrusted with such disproportionate influence, we need to be worthy of that trust by being godly influences in our families, in our communities, and in our nation.

Our founders wanted this nation to be a people whom God found trustworthy. They felt the hand of God in history and especially in our own history. One of their favorite terms for God was “Providence.” The Latin motto astride the Eye of Providence on the reverse of the seal of the United States is Annuit Coeptis, meaning “He has favored our undertakings.”

James Madison declared that he saw the finished Constitution as a product of “the finger of that Almighty Hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the Revolution.” In 1789, President Washington declared in the first Thanksgiving proclamation that “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”

Of course, we weren’t the only ones to notice the role of God in our destiny. One of my favorite quotes is from Otto von Bismarck, who said, “There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America.”

But we have not always lived up to that trust that God has placed in our nation, and we need faith in God now more than ever to address the problems we face. I’m sure we are aware of the many problems we face—such as terrorism and war abroad. At home, we face an immoral and irresponsible fiscal policy leading to what is becoming a crushing debt. The total US national debt is now over $13 trillion (which breaks down to over $42,000 per citizen or $118,000 per taxpayer). In 2009, the annual deficit tripled in one year to a record $1.4 trillion. We have already passed that figure so far in 2010. We need people of faith who will stand up and demand responsibility and accountability. It’s no mistake that many municipalities canceled their fireworks displays this year in an effort to save money. Let that be a wake-up call.

Learn more about
us debt.

The leading cause of death in the United States is still abortion (nothing else even comes close). While the number of abortions each year is the lowest since it was legalized, it is still well over one million per year in our nation alone. We need people of faith who will stand up for them, stand up for those on the fringes of life—the unborn and the elderly, the sick and the lonely, the homeless and the forgotten. We need people of faith who will stand up for marriage and the family which are under assault like never before.

These and so many other problems in our nation, demand the attention of people of faith. We need to realize that if Christians don’t do these things, no one else will.

President Kennedy famously called on citizens to serve, saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Jesus asked for volunteers for the kingdom of God in today’s Gospel. It was a daunting task, but St. Luke tells us that the Lord found seventy who were up to the challenge.

Jesus told them, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” Some towns and some people will welcome you with open arms, others will not; don’t let that discourage you. Just shake the dust off your feet and keep on going. Leave the rest up to the judgment of God. He reminded them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” They were only a few handfuls, but they had God on their side. They were to be a godly influence in those communities, to make the Lord’s presence felt before his arrival.

I think the harvest in America is very plentiful, and surely the laborers are too few. But Jesus still sent the Seventy out, and we too still need to go out among the wolves. The Episcopalians are too few for this country, but then all Catholics and all Christians in America are too few. We are to be the leaven in the loaf—that small, but powerful transforming influence.

God has entrusted us with this task. We have a godly heritage and a high calling. So let this be our motto: In God We Trust.

Let us pray. Lord God Almighty, in whose Name the founders of this country won liberty for themselves and for us, and lit the torch of freedom for nations then unborn: Grant we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain our liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


Doug Indeap said...

While many founders were Christian of one sort or another, care should be taken not to make too much of the founders' individual religious beliefs. Given the republican nature of our government, it is only natural and expected that the laws enacted by our government--in both the founders' time and today--largely reflect Christianity's dominant influence in our society. That said, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our government. Indeed, any such claim is antithetical to the constitutional principle of separation of religion and state.

In assessing the nature of our government, the religiosity of the various founders, while informative, is largely beside the point. Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that plainly establishes a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity) and says nothing substantive of god(s) or religion except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.

For instance, James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to "[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government." Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., "the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress" and "for the army and navy" and "[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts"), he considered the question whether these actions were "consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom" and responded: "In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion."

Care should be taken in evaluating historical evidence. Note, for instance, that when Ben Franklin made his motion for prayers, Alexander Hamilton and others objected and ultimately the motion was dropped without a vote, and no prayers were ever held at the Constitutional Convention. Franklin penned a note at the end of his handwritten speech: "The convention, except three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary." Max Farrand, ed., 1 Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, p. 452 (1911).

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

Doug, thank you for all the input.

If we have been or are to be a Christian nation, it won't be because we have a Christian government. I will be because we the people turn to God with the question, How then shall we live? Are we up to that challenge?

Anonymous said...

It is obvious that fiscal responsibility is necessary. However, there are some caveats. First, the national debt figure you quote, which would make said debt approximately 100% of GDP, includes future projected obligations from Medicare and Medicaid. This debt has not actually been incurred yet, and therefore, should not be counted. The actual current figure is somehere around 75% of GDP. (Immediately after WWII, the national debt was at its highest when compared with GDP, at 125%.) Third, any discussion of this sort must include progressive tax reform such that those few whose income is highest, and who possess virtually all the wealth, pay their fair share. As it stands now, the top 10% receive around 90%of all income and possess 90% of all wealth, while the bottom 90% receive 10% of the income and control 10% of the wealth. As Warren Buffett put it, "the class war is over and my class has won." Because this situation is not only unjust and dangerous, but is also unsustainable (a very similar situation led to the market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression which followed), Buffett and other wealthy Americans, such as Bill Gates, Sr., are advocating a tax structure which is far more progressive than it is now (and would, of course, include reintroducing the estate tax on large estates). As it stands now, when all taxes are considered, we all pretty much pay 40% of our income in taxes. Obviously, this is too high for most people, but too low for a few people.

Fr. Greg Blevins