Watch Your Language

Some cultural change comes like a lightning strike, leaving the world instantly and irrevocably altered. Think 9/11. In one morning, America (and indeed the Western world) was brought face to face with a “new normal,” a change in so many facets of life.

More often, however, such change happens slowly, incrementally, and rather inconspicuously. This kind of change can easily be overlooked unless, for one reason or another, something spurs us to take a step back and consider just how different things have become. If a man looks at himself in the mirror everyday, he may never be struck by the fact that he’s gained fifteen pounds in the last year. Looking at last year’s Christmas photo, on the other hand, might make the issue much more vivid.

Thomas Kidd, an associate professor of history at Baylor University and Senior Fellow of its Institute for Studies of Religion, provided a similar opportunity this morning in USA Today’s weekly “On Religion” column. Entitled “Watch Your Language, Mr. President,” the piece draws attention to President Obama’s avoidance of religious references central to our nation’s history and culture. Kidd explains:

Earlier this fall, President Obama repeatedly misquoted the Declaration of Independence, saying “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that each of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights.” Why leave out the “Creator”? Doing this once would have gathered no notice. Twice, and the grumbling began. Three times, and people began to wonder whether he had made a conscious decision to reword this founding document, presumably for the purpose of political correctness.

Another misstep came in his speech in Indonesia a month ago, when Obama told the audience that America’s national motto was E Pluribus Unum, or “Out of Many, One.” Of course, this is incorrect: the national motto, since 1956, is “In God We Trust.” (Didn’t they teach that at Harvard?) This error would be a minor problem in isolation, but it continues to fuel the growing concern that this president is recasting the ways in which these capacious religious principles have stood at the heart of our national identity.

It’s instructive to compare President Obama’s course, be it intentional or not, with one of his famous predecessors. If you’ve been to the Lincoln Memorial, you’ve probably read these words:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Those words, taken from President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, are literally engraved onto the wall of the Memorial. Much apparently has changed in the intervening years.

Of course, change isn’t always bad. In the immortal (?) words of Billy Joel, “The good ol’ days weren’t always so good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems” (ironically taken, given the present discussion, from a song called “Keepin’ the Faith”). So is it a problem to steer away from these religious references? Kidd continues:

So is the president’s misuse of our God-centered dictums a big deal, or is it just one more example of his enemies piling on when they see a chance? Given our conflicts over America’s religious identity, it really is a big deal. First of all, it is important for President Obama not to repeatedly misquote the Declaration of Independence and to incorrectly identify the national motto. But more substantially, his mistakes send a message—hopefully unintentional—that the president wishes to define America as a secular nation.

In 2009, the president generated another controversy when he said that Americans “do not consider [them]selves a Christian nation.” To the extent that this means we are not an exclusively Christian nation, he is correct. Religious liberty in America has always sheltered non-Christians under its protective shield. But it is quite another thing to construe America as a secular nation, in which religion—or principles of faith—will have no role in the public sphere. A secular nation is hardly what the Founders intended. Religious principles have always undergirded the nation, and none more so than equality by God’s creation.

The notion that “all men are created equal, (and) that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” is indispensible to understanding American history. It is not susceptible to casual modification by the president, or anyone else. This idea assures us that our equality comes from our common standing before God, our Creator, who has endowed us with rights that no one can justly violate.

I agree with Kidd and would amplify the point along the following lines. The idea of basic human rights and equality of worth originating from God is not merely indispensable to understanding our history. In other words, it’s not just a matter of appreciating how we got to this point as a nation. No, if we remove God from the equation, how do we consistently account for the concepts of human rights and equality of worth at all?

Notice I said “consistently account.” We could of course appeal to public opinion about what constitute rights and so forth. But public opinion changes. What we really need is some standard, something that stands rooted, that can tell us if such opinion has changed for the better or worse. But where does such a standard exist apart from a transcendent God and his constant character?

As the tide of secularism has risen, many people have pointed out that there is nothing behind its proverbial curtain. One day those who believe they’re doing a favor for human rights by advocating secularism may just realize they’re sawing at the very branch on which they stand.

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