Social & Domestic Issues

From Manger Square to Public Square

“It is good for Winston to sing hymns with the Methodies,” said FDR as he escorted his distinguished visitor to Foundry Methodist Church on Christmas morning, 1941. In those stern days after Pearl Harbor-Churchill never called them dark days-the leaders of the world’s fighting free nations were not embarrassed to be seen worshiping in public.

Their presence in that pew gave encouragement to their embattled peoples. Churchill had never heard “O Little Town of Bethlehem” before. It soothed him. “I’m glad I went,” he said, in a story recorded in a remarkable new book by David Bercuson and Holger Herwig. In One Christmas in Washington, the authors relate Winston’s reaction to the service: “It’s the first time my mind has been at rest for a long time.”

This is but one of dozens of examples of leaders of our nation, leaders of both parties, seeking God’s guidance as they bore the terrible burdens of office. Twenty years later, the world witnessed another remarkable scene.

The outgoing President and the new President sat in the January chill as the clergyman approached the podium. “Almighty God, we pray that you will enlighten us that we may know our responsibilities as children of God.” He urged the overflowing crowd and all who watched on television to “see the divine spark in our neighbor that can make him our friend.” Continuing the long prayer, the clergyman spoke of America’s “duty to respect the rights of all men [and her] duty to prevent the spread of totalitarian terror.”

The year was 1961. The President being inaugurated was not some conservative Republican, nor even an Evangelical Christian. It was John F. Kennedy and those words were the words of Cardinal Cushing of Boston.

Significantly, it was the first Inauguration at which a Roman Catholic prelate delivered the opening prayer. And what a prayer! The cardinal spoke for fully twenty minutes. During that time, the wiring malfunctioned and the speaker’s podium actually caught fire.

The coatless young President then said, “The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” JFK’s unforgettable inaugural address was reprinted and posted in homes, churches, schools, and barber shops all over America. As he concluded, he said: “Here on earth, God’s work must surely be our own.”

No one raced to the television studios or the op-ed columns to complain about JFK’s bringing religion into the public square. No one expressed outrage at the thought that God leads the nations forward. No one even blamed the atheists or the ACLU for the podium fire.

Kennedy’s Inauguration took place less than five years after President Eisenhower had signed a law making “In God We Trust” our national motto. That bill wasn’t controversial, either. In fact, the legislation passed by wide margins in both Houses of Congress. Sam Rayburn, Democrat of Texas, was speaker of the House. Lyndon B. Johnson, another Texas Democrat, was the Senate majority leader.

Of course, Kennedy might not have been elected as our first Catholic President had his campaign not distributed leaflets to every black church in America the Sunday before the election. NBC’s Chris Matthews tells the story in his best-selling book on Kennedy and Nixon. Kennedy got 78 percent of black voters’ support. And he won by only 114,000 out of nearly 70 million votes cast.

But much has changed. Today there is aggressive intolerance from liberal atheists and militant secularists who are determined to drive faith out of public life.

They won no war. They carried no election. They persuaded no majorities to share their Grinch-like view of religion in American public life. Instead, they rely on their dominance of unelected liberals on the benches of the nation’s courts. Of course, they also appeal to the amen corner of many in the press.

They are not even-handed in their bigotry. None of them charged into court to challenge public school courses that are little more than Islamic indoctrination. Students in California have been told to role-play as Muslim warriors against Christian crusaders. Was the ACLU there to protest this? No! It was too busy trying to bulldoze the Mount Soledad cross.

Every day, we hear criticisms of Evangelicals who dare to exercise their 1st Amendment rights. Everywhere are books and articles registering alarm that a theocracy is being planned for America.

We did not hear these cries when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his Southern Christian Leadership Conference led hundreds of thousands of marchers to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Among the marchers in August, 1963, were thousan ds of pastors, priests, nuns and rabbis. Was their cause illegitimate because their ranks were religious?

Dr. King said black Americans’ inherent human dignity was denied by segregation. He was right. He quoted the Declaration of Independence and the Prophet Amos: “Let Justice roll down like a river, like a never ending stream!” It’s hypocritical to laud Dr. King’s march based on faith, and then to castigate others who turn to the same scriptures for inspiration.

As Americans, we live in a representative democracy. More than 80% of Americans profess to be Christians. If our laws are truly to reflect the consent of the governed, we must be allowed to voice-and to vote-our values. But whether secularists like it or not, people of faith are here and as Dr. King said: We will not be moved!


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