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It was the evening of April 30, 1973. Richard Nixon was addressing the nation live from the Oval Office in an attempt to manage the growing Watergate scandal. It was a difficult speech for the President: he announced the "resignations" of three of his administration's most powerful officials - Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman, Chief Domestic Advisor, John Ehrlichman, and Attorney General Richard Kleindienst -- but the President nonetheless tried to sound optimistic. As he approached the end of his speech, Nixon noted that he had "exactly 1,361 days remaining" in his term and wanted them "to be the best days in America's history." "Tonight," he continued, "I ask for your prayers to help me in everything that I do throughout the days of my presidency." Then came the magic words: "God bless America and God bless each and every one of you."
The context was hardly an auspicious beginning for this particular phrase in the presidency, and it did not immediately catch on. Gerald Ford did not use it, nor did Jimmy Carter, but Ronald Reagan, that was a different story. Reagan made "God bless America" the omnipresent political slogan that it is today. He used the phrase to conclude his dramatic nomination acceptance speech at the Republican convention in July 1980, and once in office, made it his standard sign-off. Presidents since Reagan have followed suit, and the shift in presidential rhetoric could hardly be more striking.
According to an intriguing new book called The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, (2) from the inauguration of Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 -- which most observers view as the beginning of the modern presidency -- to the end of Jimmy Carter's term in January 1981, presidents gave 229 major addresses. Nixon's use of "God bless America" was the only time in any of them that the phrase passed a president's lips. In contrast, from Reagan's inauguration through the six-year mark of the current Bush administration, presidents gave 129 major speeches and they said "God bless America" (or "God bless the United States") 49 times. Hmm. Is all this recent God talk reflective of some shift in the basic beliefs of those at the pinnacle of power? Or is something a bit less noble at work here?
According to the authors of the book, it is not that the past four presidents have simply been more pious than their predecessors. Few would doubt the honest faith of Dwight Eisenhower (a good Presbyterian), or Lyndon Johnson, or Jimmy Carter. It is that "God bless America," true to its presidential birth on that April evening in 1973, has grown to be politically expedient. The phrase is a simple way for presidents and politicians of all stripes to pass the God and Country test, to let press and public know that "I am a real, God-fearing American." Few notice if they say it, but many notice if they don't.
For a time in recent years the embedding of politics with religion in our nation became uncomfortably partisan as socially and theologically conservative evangelicals like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson took important seats at the table of the Republican party. Then because so much of the subsequent Republican agenda was presented in terms of conservative religious rhetoric - abortion, gay marriage, the creation/ evolution debate, etc. - Democrats seemed to shy away from any references to issues of faith at all in an effort to distance themselves from social positions which they did not support. The "God talk divide" (if you will) came to a zenith in the election of 2004 as Karl Rove and his compatriots put together a strategy that maximized conservative religious support for George Bush while John Kerry struggled to pass the "God-fearing American" test because he was never able to articulate his deep faith in a way that was able to connect.
By 2006, the landscape had changed somewhat. The religious rhetoric was continuing, but voters were becoming disillusioned with politicians whose God talk did not exactly reflect a God walk. The sex scandals and kickback schemes finally took their toll and the political landscape in Washington changed.
Meanwhile, the Democrats were more and more concerned that the perception of their party was becoming one, not of religious neutrality, but of outright religious hostility, and this was a perception that they knew needed correction. More and more office-holders and candidates began to talk about their own religious background and their own relationship with God.
Last June I participated in a conference in Washington put together by Sojourners magazine. It was called Pentecost 2007 and was organized to highlight the justice issues that Sojourners has long been known to support. What made the conference unique was a special "Presidential Forum on Faith, Values, and Poverty" that was scheduled one evening. Sojourners hosted a live broadcast on CNN of leading Democratic presidential contenders, Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama on Monday, June 4 (yes, this primary campaign has been going on for that long). This was a first-of-its-kind event - an evening of God talk from the Democrats as the candidates were questioned live on television by nationally prominent religious leaders. It was a most interesting evening.
What has followed since then has been a fairly civil conversation about religion this election season (apart from the exploitation of some remarks by Barack Obama's former pastor and references to intolerant statements from televangelist supporters of John McCain). When Hillary Clinton was asked in a forum on faith and politics at Messiah College a few weeks ago about her favorite Bible character, she named Esther, and she explained it in a way that revealed her familiarity with the Bible. Obama is a thoughtful Christian and church member. John McCain, not yet subjected to much scrutiny regarding his religion, seems to know his way around the Episcopal and Baptist traditions. The questions posed to Clinton and Obama at the faith forum at Messiah were specific and tough. "Why does God allow human suffering?" a student asked Senator Clinton. Her answer was disarming: "I have no idea," she said, "but I intend to ask him." (3) Good for her. I have some questions that I intend to ask as well.
Is all the God talk on the campaign trail a good thing or not? Some would probably say no because they feel that religion is a private matter that should not intrude into the public square. As you might surmise, I disagree because as I have said many times, religion and politics cannot be separated because they are both reflections of humanity's efforts to reach onward and upward to our highest and best aspirations, both individually and as a society. Candidates, feel free to continue - you have my blessing.
So saying, I would add that using God as a slogan, using "God bless America" as a Madison Avenue tag line for a speech, leaves something to be desired. For all the world, because it has been repeated so much, and particularly when politicians are concluding speeches trying to justify things like Watergate or war with the phrase, it's value is diminished to the level of a Nike ad that says "Just do it." We should just do better.
God talk is important, as this particular Sunday would attest. Today is Trinity Sunday, the only Sunday in the long calendar of the church year that is set aside explicitly for God talk. Trinity Sunday reminds Christians that our God talk is very specific - not some generic Supreme Being floating around out there, up there. Our God talk says that this one we worship is actually known to us, and known, in fact, in at least three ways - Father, Son, Holy Spirit.
Nowhere in scripture do we find the doctrine spelled out. Nowhere do we even find the word Trinity. But Holy Writ does make the concept clear as, for example, we hear Jesus' Great Commission to the church - "go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the FATHER and of the SON and of the HOLY SPIRIT, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you." We find the same thing as we encounter Paul's benediction in our lesson - "May the grace of the Lord JESUS CHRIST, and the love of GOD, and the fellowship of the HOLY SPIRIT be with you all." Even in the Hebrew scriptures, as far back as the story of creation, we find "Let US make man in OUR image, in OUR likeness..." (4) The Trinity is there even though it is without definition or explanation.
The early church was nurtured in the cradle of Jewish monotheism - one God, only one. And yet they needed to express the truth that God is more than remote and distant. God had come to us, the church wanted us to know, in flesh and blood in the person of Jesus Christ. And it wanted us to know that God is still at work in our world today through the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit. The church was trying to say to us that the word God was limiting if it did not convey to us a God who has come to us and a God who is with us still. Thus the doctrine of the Trinity was born.
So saying, we confess that even the word Trinity is limiting. If we could confine God to a formula, any formula, God would not be God. We say God is "Father, Son and Holy Spirit" but those three manifestations are not enough. God is also Creator, Sustainer, Provider. God is Judge, Savior and Deliverer. God is Light, Love and Peace. God is omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent. (5) "Holy, holy, holy...God in three persons, Blessed Trinity."
Theologians have been trying to make the doctrine intelligible from the beginning. Have they been successful? Somewhat. They have used illustrations like H2O - we all know what that is: water. But it is also ice. And for that matter, it is also steam. Three different manifestations of the same thing: H2O. Or look at me. A man. Husband. Father. Son. Brother. Uncle. Someday, Grandpa. Even Pastor and hopefully, friend. Same man, so many different ways of seeing me. Does that help?
James Hazelwood is a pastor in Brooklyn, New York, and he reflects on a sermon he preached on a Trinity Sunday. "A couple of years ago," he writes, "I thought I did a rather fine job of explaining the Trinity. After worship, a woman in the congregation walked up to me and said, 'Pastor, I've been listening to preachers talk about the Trinity for nearly 70 years now.' Then she paused, and I thought she was going to add that I had finally made it clear for her. But she continued: 'No pastor has ever been able to explain it to me. And you know what I think? I think that pastors don't understand it either.'" (6)
She is more right than she might imagine. Truth be told, no one adequately understands the doctrine of the Trinity, and that is all right, I think. Why should there not be mysteries too grand for our little brains to comprehend? What fish can ever adequately explain the nature of the keeper of its aquarium? How can we, who are limited by space and time, even hope to explain a God who we insist does not fit the categories of space and time? Actually, when we talk about the Trinity, that is merely our attempt to make the nature of God somewhat understandable to those of us who admit that, no matter what we say, it will never be enough.
God talk. For Christians it is more than a casually quoted political slogan. When we get into God talk, we are speaking of a creative power behind our universe, of a loving person who has entered our universe, and, even more, a Divine Presence who is in our lives today.
"The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." This is more than Paul's benign good wishes. This is powerful stuff. If the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is with us, our lives will never be the same. If we have experienced the incredible self-giving love of God, our lives will never be the same. If the fellowship of the Holy Spirit characterizes our common life as a church, our lives will never be the same. If, in fact, this benediction were ever to come true in power, our lives - and indeed, our world - would never be the same. (7)
"The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all." This, by the way is not a wish, it is a promise. Paul's benediction does not contain the word "May" which the translators have added in our pew Bibles. It is simply, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all." It is a given, a certainty. Open your eyes to see it, open your heart to receive it, and open your life to be blessed by it. "Holy, holy, holy...God in three persons, Blessed Trinity."
1. David Domke and Kevin Coe, "Happy 35th, God Bless America," TIME magazine online, 4/29/08
2. David Domke and Kevin Coe, Oxford University Press, 2008
3. John Buchanan, "Faith Forums," The Christian Century, 5/20/08, p. 3
4. Genesis 1:26
5. King Duncan, "Who Is God Anyway?," eSermons.com
6. Quoted by King Duncan, "Building An Understanding Of God," eSermons.com
7. Carlos Wilton, "Three Great Words," unpublished sermon preached at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church, Point Pleasant, NJ, 6/6/93