Religion and Politics

GOD is no stranger to American politics. Many of the country's great political utterances have included moving references to divine power. Among honored examples is Lincoln's second inaugural address, where the solemn president, enmeshed in civil war, gives fellow citizens what amounts to an anguished sermon:

"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 bondman's 250 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 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, `The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.' "

Lincoln was appealing to his listeners' most deeply held beliefs, admonishing them to endure in a terrible task. Then, and now, most Americans accept that there is something spiritually ennobling at the heart of their national identity - something epitomized in the designation of "all men are created equal" as a self-evident truth. Many of them instinctively respond to a call to religious faith, which they see as a central, protected element in their democracy.

And many Americans just as instinctively recoil when religion is devalued by political rhetoric - when appeals to God seem designed to impugn an opponents' faith and thus become divisive, not unifying. Church leaders with the National Council of Churches and other organizations saw just this tendency in some recent Republican speechmaking. Pat Buchanan's convention proclamation of a "religious" war over cultural values was singled out, as was President Bush's later comment that the Democrats didn't use t he word "God" a single time in their platform.

Such criticism is a useful reminder to both sides in the current campaign: References to God and faith should be modest and spring from a desire to heal and unify, not from a desire to win.

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