With God on Our Side

God is on our side, President Bush assures us.

Speaking at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, he declared that America’s “responsibility to history” was to “rid the world of evil.” The service ended with the singing of the Civil War anthem, “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

To rid the world of evil is as much a theological task as it is a military one. President Bush seems confident that God’s truth marches with him and his nation. During the Civil War, by contrast, Abraham Lincoln insisted that Americans needed to know that there might be a “difference of purpose between the Almighty and them.” To deny this truth was to deny that there was a God governing the world.

The service at the National Cathedral was not the first time Bush asserted his belief in America’s divine mission. Even before he became president he proclaimed that “our nation is chosen by God and commissioned by history to be a model to the world.”

This conviction is deeply rooted in American history. Preaching to his fellow Puritans in 1630, shortly before they landed in Massachusetts, John Winthrop proclaimed that New England would be like a “city on a hill.” The whole world would be watching. As God’s people, the colonists had a sacred responsibility to do God’s will.

This idea, that Americans are a chosen people and their country a chosen land, has animated much of our history, for both good and ill.

In God’s name, his people have declared their belief in human equality, and they have created institutions to make it a reality. Also in God’s name, they have justified slavery, the theft of Indian lands and war.

After the Spanish-American War, Filipinos assumed that the United States would give them their independence. After praying for guidance, President McKinley announced his decision to keep the Philippines in order to “Christianize” its people, notwithstanding the fact that Spanish missionaries had accomplished this two centuries before.

But not all American presidents have been so sure of God’s will.

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln wrestled with the fate of four million slaves and real possibility that the nation would not survive, issues more momentous than those we face today. Like President Bush, Lincoln sprinkled his speeches with scriptural passages and references to God. Like Bush, he was a man of strong moral convictions. He knew evil when he saw it. “If slavery is not wrong,” he wrote in 1864, “nothing is wrong.”

Yet Lincoln was never certain whose side God was on. It was presumptuous to assume that one’s own purposes were God’s. “In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God,” Lincoln noted in 1862. “Both may be, and one must be wrong. God can not be for, and against the same thing at the same time.” It was likely that God’s purposes differed from the purposes of either party.

Lincoln drove this point home in his Second Inaugural Address, possibly the finest speech ever delivered by an American president. Speaking in March 1865 as the Civil War neared its bloody end, he observed that both sides, North and South, “read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.² He said: “The prayers of both could not be answered; and those of neither has been answered fully.”

This theological insight affected Lincoln’s conduct of the war, which would be won by human beings, not divine intervention. Notwithstanding his moral opposition to slavery, the presence of slave states such as Kentucky in the Union required that he temper his convictions with pragmatism. He once explained that while he hoped to have God on his side, he absolutely had to have Kentucky.

Bush, who believes America to be ordained by God and who credits God with the fact he is in the White House, has turned Lincoln’s theological and political wisdom on its head. Convinced that God is with him, the president has shown remarkably little interest in allies at a time he needs them most.

According to Bob Woodward, the author of “Bush at War,” the president has told his advisers that he does not worry about alienating other nations. “At some point, we may be the only ones left,” he has said. “That’s OK with me. We are America.”

“You never ask questions,” Bob Dylan sang in 1963, “when God’s on your side.”

The philosopher William James, an ardent opponent of American imperialism in the Philippines a century ago, once declared that “there is no certitude,” only “men who are certain.” George W. Bush is such a man.

 Bush, clearly a devout man, apparently believes that since he has gained his soul, he need not worry about losing the whole world.

Fred Nielsen teaches in the history department of the University of Nebraska at Omaha and writes for the History News Service.

March, 2003