19 November 2013

"under God . . ."

19 NOVEMBER 2013. One hundred fifty years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln stood before those gathered to mark the bloodiest earth in the great Civil War and to honor the fallen who had died in the struggle to preserve the Union. In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, enduring a long two-hour oration before him, the President waited and finally delivered what we today know as the Gettysburg Address: a two minute, 272 word speech that today is widely regarded as the most sacred and treasured speech--in America's "religion" of democracy--that has been given to that moment or since.

From that day in November 1863, five hard copies of the speech survive and each of them has slight variations. The copy that is considered the "standard" is the one written in President Lincoln's own hand, titled, dated, and signed by him. It is known as the "Bliss copy" because it was prepared by the President for Colonel Alexander Bliss. The Bliss copy, among other distinctions, bears a phrase that the two earliest hard copies of the speech do not . . .
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
It is curious that the two earliest hard copies of the speech omit the phrase "under God." But, it is clear that President Lincoln's own hand prepared a later copy of the text with this phrase. He attached his signature to the text with this phrase. Clearly, President Lincoln wanted to include this phrase in the speech. And, contemporary newspaper accounts of the speech, which recounted the text of the speech exactly, also included this phrase.

Anyone who has given prepared speeches knows the exact wording of a speech is often times deviated from upon the podium. In fact, I would defy anyone with intellectual demand to write a speech, go over it again and again, and then deliver the speech with nary a deviation. The mind is constantly at work imagining the reaction of the audience, guiding the words to evoke the message just so, working through phrases to give just the right emphasis. Even more so for a political speech. Even more so for a moment in history as weighty as the commemoration of the battle at Gettysburg!

So, what of the phrase "under God?" President Obama, among other recent Presidents and celebrities, participating in a PBS sponsored montage of Ken Burns, a noted documentarian, was given a copy of the Gettysburg address to read that omits the phrase "under God." Apparently, only Mr. Obama read this version of the Gettysburg Address. However, today the White House press secretary rebuffed the omission as the choice of Ken Burns and not the President. (story here)

But, no matter who made the choice, the implication is clear. The culture of today is erasing God from our public life--even where historical account includes this most basic notation of faith.

Far from being "not a total failure," as President Lincoln later was known to have said about the Gettysburg Address, the speech is now seen as a unifying moment in American history. For, in the Gettysburg Address the scourge of our Civil War was elevated from a political dispute over state's rights and the role of the federal government to a moral imperative for the country to stand together for what is right: liberty, equality, and the democratic ideals of governance, "of the people, by the people, for the people . . . ." In this context, the speech unifies us all. But, this unity in our culture today has been twisted to mark division from those of faith.

In fact, the choice of the speech text for President Obama to record, his own choice or the choice of another, by omission of that crucial phraseology of faith--under God--pushes those of faith a inch further from the public sphere.

Don't let this happen. Pray for Mr. Obama. He and his office deserve respect and our prayers should always go with the President and all our leaders in government for the Lord to grant them wisdom and guidance.

Holy Spirit, please be upon them. May all in leadership of our country truly do your Holy Will, for the common good and the good of those most vulnerable. Amen.

But, speak out against this push of religion from the public sphere. Each of us has written on our hearts the yearning to know our creator. Each of us knows that one greater than ourselves is our author. This is not merely a private thought. This is who we are! Humanity cries to God for help! Pray too that our cries will not be stifled in our public dialogue.


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