Our country has a long lineage of religious faith informing politics. It is not necessary to conduct exhaustive research into the spiritual lives of U.S. presidents to establish that the vast majority of them affirmed repeatedly, in a variety of ways, their belief in a supreme deity. Depending on the president, this deity could be defined as the personal God who pursues intimate relationship with human beings, revealed in Jesus Christ; the covenantal God of the Judeo-Christian tradition; the supreme deity of natural theology, creator and sustainer of the world; the transcendent being whose power and timelessness supersede the frailty of human life; the God of self-help, who helps those who help themselves; or a deistic God, the great watch-maker in the sky, who wound up the universe and left it to run on its own.
What's God got to do with America? In the context of the religious faith of American presidents, belief in God has consistently imbued our leaders with a sense of accountability to divine authority, responsibility to seek divine guidance, and the hope of divine protection for the life of the nation. God has mattered to our presidents for several reasons. They have recognized that their decisions are answerable in a higher court of appeal than opinion polls. They have affirmed that the advice of advisers, cabinet staff, and joint chiefs, the opinions of spouses, and the dictates of personal conscience don't add up to enough guidance for the momentous decisions thrust upon them. And in times of crisis, they have admitted that even the very best human efforts and accomplishments are not enough to secure peace and safety for the country.
An interesting way to look at how various presidents viewed divine accountability, guidance, and protection is through their choice of the particular Bible passage on which they solemnly swore at their inauguration.
• Abraham Lincoln, 1865: "Judge not, that ye be not judged" (Matthew 7:1); "Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" (Matthew 18:7); "And I heard another out of the altar say, Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments" (Revelation 16:7).
• Andrew Johnson, 1865: "The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will" (Proverbs 21:1).
• Benjamin Harrison, 1889: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth. He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep. The LORD is thy keeper: the LORD is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night" (Psalm 121:1–6).
• Theodore Roosevelt, 1905: "But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves. For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass" (James 1:22–23).
• William Howard Taft, 1909: "Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people? And the speech pleased the LORD, that Solomon had asked this thing. And God said unto him, Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment" (1 Kings 3:9–11).
• Woodrow Wilson, 1917: "God is our refuge and strength, a helper who is always found in times of trouble. Therefore we will not be afraid, though the earth trembles and the mountains topple into the depths of the seas, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with its turmoil. . . ." (Psalm 46).
• Warren G. Harding, 1921: "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8).
• Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933, 1937, 1941, 1945: "Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal . . ." (1 Corinthians 13:1–13).
• Harry S. Truman, 1949: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Blessed are those who mourn, because they will be comforted. Blessed are the gentle, because they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, because they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, because they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, because they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you, and say every kind of evil against you falsely because of Me" (Matthew 5:3–11 HCSB; Exodus 20:3–17).
• Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953: "Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain" (Psalm 127:1); "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).
• James E. Carter, 1977: "He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" (Micah 6:8).
• Ronald W. Reagan, 1981, 1985: "If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14).
• William J. Clinton, 1993: "For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting" (Galatians 6:8). In 1997: "And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places:
thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in" (Isaiah 58:12).
• George W. Bush, 2005: "But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
All of these individuals were elected by the people of the United States. Almost all of them have been religious. What does that say about what God's got to do with America?
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.